Why Trump Won't Move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem—At Least For Now

Israel embassy
A man takes pictures of a giant banner congratulating Donald Trump in Jerusalem on January 20. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

On the south side of Jerusalem, an open field that once served as a British military encampment has stood unoccupied for more than two decades. In the spring, Arab shepherds often graze their sheep on the low scrub grass. In 1995, the Israeli government set aside the nearly eight acres of land for the new U.S. Embassy after Congress passed a law requiring the U.S. to move it from Tel Aviv to Israel's capital. Ever since, however, every American president—both Republican and Democrat—has invoked a waiver that postpones the move, sobered by the impact it would have on the Middle East and U.S. national security.

After less than a week in office, President Donald Trump, who promised repeatedly on the campaign trail to break from his predecessors and move the embassy, is now backing away from that pledge. Instead, he is reportedly pursuing something far more ambitious: a revived Middle East peace process. "That is their top priority," Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC host who speaks frequently with Trump, said on January 23, citing an unnamed White House source. "And they have been told in no uncertain terms that the recognition of Jerusalem sets that back for the next four years."

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The White House has declined to comment on Scarborough's report, but a day earlier, Sean Spicer, Trump's press secretary, said an embassy move wouldn't be happening anytime soon. Hours later, after Trump spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone, Israeli officials said the two leaders gave the embassy move scant attention during their 30-minute conversation, instead focusing on Iran.

National security analysts say postponing the embassy move was a smart decision, even if Trump isn't really considering a new Middle East peace initiative. In recent weeks, he's received a flood of warnings that fulfilling his campaign pledge could be disastrous. Ambassadors from Egypt and Jordan, which are important U.S. allies and the only two Arab countries that have peace treaties with Israel, met with Trump's advisers in early January to warn them of the violence likely to erupt across the Muslim world if the president took a step that recognized Israel's exclusive claim to the city. Not only do Palestinians see Jerusalem as their capital, the envoys warned, but the city is Islam's third holiest site, which could make a move even more incendiary.

"The jihadis and the Iranians would exploit the hell out of it," Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to six secretaries of state on the Middle East peace process, tells Newsweek . "You'd have Sunni and Shia radicals both waging holy war against the Israelis and the United States."

Some Arab leaders prepared for the worst. Jordan's King Abdullah met in Amman with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on January 22 to outline the steps they would take if the Americans moved the embassy. Among other things, Mohammed Shtayyeh, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said the Palestinian Authority could revoke its recognition of Israel, a move that would likely precipitate a third intifada, or Palestinian uprising. Jordanian security forces braced for violent protests against the U.S.-educated king.

The likelihood of such a backlash worries Israeli leaders too. Diplomatic sources tell Newsweek that some of Netanyahu's top security aides have quietly cautioned their counterparts in the White House that moving the embassy is not in Israel's interests—at least right now. (The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivities surrounding the issue.) Over the past year, Israel has been developing closer security and intelligence-sharing ties with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in the face of Iran's growing influence in the region. Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem could spark popular protests in those countries that might force their leaders to curtail those exchanges.

In his report, Scarborough noted that Trump will seek a regional peace accord between Israel and the Arab states and not necessarily an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. "It's not going to be Israel across the table from the Palestinians," he said. "It's going to be one Arab country after another recognizing Israel's right to exist, but that only happens as long as they delay moving the capital to Jerusalem."

Such an agreement sounds like a throwback to 1979, when the U.S. brokered the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, which left the Palestinians on the sidelines. In 2002 and again in 2007, the Arab League endorsed a Saudi plan that offered Israel full recognition and peace in return for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel never fully embraced the plan, opting instead for a series of U.S.-brokered talks that collapsed, one after the other, amid mutual recriminations.

Today, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf countries once more have turned away from the Palestinian conflict to focus on the threats posed by Iran and Islamist militants. And increasingly, they're putting aside their hostility toward Israel and cooperating with it against their common foe, Iran. Trump hopes this shift will help him at the negotiating table, but Middle East experts believe it will be hard to convince Arab leaders to exclude the Palestinians entirely from his vision of peace.

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A Palestinian demonstrator in the West Bank protests against Donald Trump's call for the U.S. to relocate its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, on January 20. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

"It's not the first thing on their mind," says Steven Cook, an Arabist at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But the Palestinian issue is still emotive and symbolic. It will be very difficult for the Arab states to take the next step of sitting down and recognizing Israel without addressing it."

Either way, many analysts applauded Trump's pullback from the embassy move. They say he'll need to use all his negotiating skills if he hopes to broker a regional peace accord—something Trump has called the "ultimate deal." Many veteran Middle East hands suggest Trump might reconsider his intention to appoint his trusted son-in-law, Jared Kushner, 32, an Orthodox Jewish real estate developer with no diplomatic experience, as his Middle East envoy. "If you can't produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can," he told Kushner at a dinner of top campaign donors at Washington's Union Station the night before his inauguration.

Yet Kushner may have already compromised his ability to be seen as an honest broker. The Israeli daily Haaretz last year dug up tax records showing his family foundation, which he and his siblings direct with their parents, has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Jewish settlement organizations in the West Bank. Palestinians regard the settlements, home to roughly 630,000 Jews, as Israel's way of preventing establishment of their independent state.

"If anyone was foolish enough to believe that a Trump administration might succeed in negotiating a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, this is further evidence of their delusions," Diana Buttu, a Palestinian political analyst and former adviser to Abbas, told the Associated Press.

Trump also will need to brush up on international law, which bans a conquering power from transferring parts of its population into occupied territory. Trump's advisers on Israeli affairs say he doesn't consider the settlements to be illegal or obstacles to peace. Enabling his views is the Republican Party's platform, which rejects "the false notion" that Israel is an occupying power. Israel, which seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, argues that Jordan's sovereignty over the territory wasn't internationally recognized at the time.

Trump appeared to deliberately flout diplomatic convention in December when he nominated David Friedman, a New York bankruptcy lawyer with far-right political views, as his ambassador to Israel. In his upcoming confirmation hearing, senators almost certainly will question Friedman about his strong opposition to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is the long-standing U.S. position.

"There has never been a two-state solution, only a two-state narrative," Friedman wrote in a column for Arutz 7, a right-leaning Israeli news site. Arguing that Palestinians would have much better lives if they accepted Israeli rule, he added, "Much has changed over the decades since the two-state narrative began…. Palestinians can witness—through the internet and first-hand experience—the advantages of integration into Israeli society."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump in New York on September 25, 2016. Kobi Gideon/Government Press Office (GPO)/File Handout via REUTERS

Advocating such a move would be a major break in American policy. Yet some say Friedman's views are more attuned to the reality on the ground in both Israel and the West Bank. As the stalemate between the two sides drags on, more Israelis and Palestinians are beginning to discuss amongst themselves a one-state solution in which Israel absorbs the West Bank and its Palestinian population, says Kurt Volker, a former ambassador in the George W. Bush administration.

"The settlements and the intertwining of societies have gone too far, and there isn't any way to separate them anymore," he tells Newsweek . "You can't draw the boundary, you can't realistically evacuate that many Jewish settlers, and you can't trust the Palestinians on security. So it's going to have to be Israel in charge of the whole territory on security."

The problem, Middle East analysts say, is that no one has figured out yet how Israel could remain a Jewish state if it were to give all those Palestinians the vote, or how Israel could remain America's only democratic ally in the Middle East if it didn't offer them full rights.

That conundrum hasn't stopped Netanyahu from accelerating settlement activity now that Trump is in office. Within days of his inauguration, Israel approved more than 3,000 new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the coming weeks, the Israeli parliament is expected to pass bills that would legalize more than 100 illegal outposts built on private Palestinian land in the West Bank and annex Ma'ale Adumim, a sprawling settlement city of 40,000 between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. The move, a major sticking point in past peace talks, would cut the West Bank nearly in half.

Of course, none of this matters if Trump's idea of a peace process is to ignore the Palestinians and pursue agreements between Israel and its new security partners in the Gulf. That certainly appears to be the view among some Republicans. Duncan Hunter of California, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, says Trump's policy is to "go with whatever Netanyahu sees as the best course for the Israelis."

That view partially explains Trump's postponement of the embassy move, along with his own concerns about an eruption of anti-American violence. But as Trump and his national security team assess the possibilities for his Middle East peace effort, advocates for relocating the embassy to Jerusalem haven't given up. Robert Satloff, executive director of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, recently published a detailed plan that he claims will enable the move to go forward without sparking protests from Palestinians. The plan proposes designating a West Jerusalem address for the temporary embassy while the new embassy is constructed. Most important, Satloff cautions, the Trump administration should stress the move does not prejudge Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem, which will be resolved in negotiations.

Miller, the former State Department adviser, thinks the plan is a fantasy. "No matter how you try to qualify it," he says, "by moving the embassy to Jerusalem, we will have basically agreed that united Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel, opening the door for the Israelis to expand their presence there without any pushback from the United States."

For Friedman, Trump's ambassadorial nominee, it apparently makes no difference whether Trump moves the embassy now or later. He already has an apartment in Jerusalem, where he plans to live and work until a new embassy rises in that open field.