With President Trump’s upcoming travel to Israel coinciding with Yom Yerushalayim, Israel’s annual holiday celebrating the reunification of the city of Jerusalem during the Six Day War, speculation has grown regarding the president’s promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The White House announced early this month that President Trump would visit Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican on his first international trip since taking office. The president and his delegation are scheduled to arrive in Israel on May 22, two days before the Israeli holiday. The overseas trip will conclude with a NATO meeting in Belgium and a G7 meeting in Italy, on May 25 and 26, respectively.
The U.S. Embassy in Israel has been located in Tel Aviv since it was established in 1949. President Trump pledged during his campaign for the presidency that he would move the embassy to Jerusalem, a pledge that both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also made but failed to fulfill. The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, passed by a Republican Congress, attempted to force the relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem by withholding funds until the completion of the move, but it contains a provision allowing a presidential waiver, which has been invoked every six months since 1998. The next waiver deadline is June 1, 2017.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Jason Greenblatt, a Trump advisor and an executive in the Trump Organization, and David M. Friedman, now the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, promised in a joint statement published shortly before the election that the Trump Administration would “recognize Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state,” and “move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.” The US does not formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Just before taking office, the president reiterated his promise to move the embassy.
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, does not expect a grand announcement when President Trump visits Israel. “I do not think he will move the embassy,” he said. Asked if he thought the US might finally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Halber suggested that he thought it was possible.
Outside of Washington, D.C., the sense of intrigue has not gone unnoticed. Howie Beigelman, executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, said he thinks the trip could be “a chance to see what a Trump Doctrine looks like.” It might also give us a sense of the president’s anti-terror strategy, and how he might “wager on peace,” according to Beigelman. While Congress and the U.S. Department of State are studying the move, he said, the president can take certain actions now to “bolster the American presence in Jerusalem.” While he did not go into specifics, it was rumored for some time that Friedman might work out of the U.S. Consulate General’s offices in Jerusalem. A number of sources have reported, however, that he will work out of the Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Speaking at an Israel Independence Day commemoration at the White House May 2, Vice President Mike Pence said that the president was “giving serious consideration to moving the American embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” receiving extended applause in the room and raising hopes among pro-Israel activists across the political spectrum.
Following that proclamation, a fake Twitter account purporting to belong to Friedman expressed hope that the ambassador would be working “out of Jerusalem very soon.” The tweet was later deleted and the account removed, but not before numerous Jewish organizations, pro-Israel advocacy groups, and various news outlets had spread the tweet by sharing it and reporting on it.
Appearing Sunday on “Meet the Press,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson responded with caution to a direct question as to whether the embassy would be moved. He said that the president was looking at the issue and trying to understand the impact of such a move and “whether Israel views it as being helpful to a peace initiative or perhaps a distraction.” The primary focus, he insisted, is on the peace process.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office was quick to respond to Secretary Tillerson’s comments.
“Israel’s position has often been expressed to the American Administration and to the world,” read a public statement released Sunday, following Tillerson’s appearance on “Meet the Press.” “The transfer of the American Embassy to Jerusalem not only will not harm the peace process, but the opposite. It will advance it by correcting a historic injustice and by smashing the Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.”
On Monday, CNN reported that several senior Administration officials had contacted the White House to urge the president not to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The report cited several unnamed sources, and said that the concerns were related to peace process and “broader regional risks.”
The White House declined requests for comment for this article.
By Seth Jacobson
Seth Jacobson is a legislative and national security analyst. He is a special contributor to Kol HaBirah.