What The US Embassy Move To Jerusalem Could Mean For US-Israel Relationship
By Daniel Odrezin,
BJF Asst. Executive Director
The first week of President Donald Trump’s administration has been full of breaking news, much of it controversial and complex. This has certainly been true on the foreign policy front including much discussion of moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. While this was a repeated campaign promise, this week a White House spokesman would not commit to the move and said the administration is only in the early stages of examining the issue.
Considering the complexities of these issues, Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the Birmingham Jewish Federation’s national organization, is taking a leading role in helping the Jewish community sort through this discussion in a constructive and nuanced way. As part of this effort, JFNA convened a webinar to explore the embassy issue.
Hundreds of representatives from Jewish communities throughout North American tuned in for the hour-long webcast featuring Dr. Robert Satloff, a foreign policy expert and Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace. JFNA Vice President for Public Policy William Daroff and Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) President & CEO David Bernstein facilitated the discussion.
The speakers began by providing viewers with a concise but comprehensive history of the debate. They explained that despite being the first country to recognize Israel after it declared independence in 1948, the US established its embassy in Tel Aviv given the uncertainty about the future status of Jerusalem. In 1995 Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act to move the embassy, but Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama did not implement the change, asserting it infringed on the executive branch’s authority to oversee foreign policy.
Daroff and Berstein then began an extensive question and answer session with Dr. Satloff, who provided in-depth analysis of the options facing the Trump administration. He expressed support for moving the embassy, which he said would be correcting a “historic injustice.” However, he said it must be done in a careful and calculated manner. Relocating the American Embassy to Jerusalem, which the Israelis consider as their capital, is a very emotional issue for the Jewish state.
SHARING ISRAEL’S CONCERNS
Bernstein noted that many believe moving the embassy to Jerusalem could lead to increased violence in the already volatile Middle East. Dr. Satloff, while acknowledging the risk, pushed back on that assumption for a number of reasons. He explained that because of turmoil throughout the Middle East, many Arab nations that once might have bolstered Palestinian violence in response to such a move may be less sympathetic now given problems they are facing elsewhere.
In addition, Dr. Satloff explained that some of these same Arab countries share Israel’s concern that the US has retreated from many of its alliances under the Obama administration. If President Trump can frame the embassy move within a greater context of strengthening relations with America’s traditional allies, he might be able to avoid resistance from the Arab world.
When asked by Daroff whether the move could have a negative impact on the peace process, Dr. Satloff said the issue should be separate from the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If President Trump can address this issue independently and relatively quickly, he can prevent entangling it with any potential peace negotiations later in his term.
Dr. Satloff also rejected the notion that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would somehow demonstrate that the US could no longer be an unbiased mediator in peace negotiations, noting that America’s diplomatic representative to the Palestinian Authority is already located in Jerusalem. He made the same argument in a recent piece in the Washington Post where he wrote the following:
“The result (of the current policy) is that Washington lacks any formal presence in the capital of its main democratic ally in the Middle East but does maintain a diplomatic presence in that ally’s capital for another political entity that claims territory within that city. It is incorrect, therefore, to say that US policy has maintained steadfast neutrality on the question of Jerusalem so that it can protect its position as an ‘honest broker.’ As odd as it sounds, actual US policy does tilt toward one side — the Palestinians.”
While he was supportive of the idea, he stressed that it was very important to proceed with caution. The tone and nuance with which the new policy is implemented — including the physical location of the new building within Jerusalem — is very important, he explained. He said he believes the Trump administration will use such caution and that he was encouraged it is addressing the issue slowly.
“Believe me, I certainly understand that there are a wide array of issues on which people who are watching this discussion may harbor great angst and anxiety about the Trump administration,” he said.
“But on this point at least, there is an inclination to want to repair an historic injustice that has been done to the State of Israel, and the administration should, in my view, be given the latitude to examine the potential… for executing policy that would do it in a way that is as least provocative as possible and in a way that in the end enhances overall American interests,” he added.
The BJF thanks the JFNA for convening such an informative discussion on this important issue. We encourage Update readers to watch the recorded webcast in full and to read Dr. Satloff’s writings on the topic by clicking the links below. As the Trump administration begins to outline and implement Middle East policy we are committed, along with JFNA, to providing our community with information and context surrounding these important and complex issues.
If you have any questions regarding the US-Israel relationship and the various complexities surrounding Israel’s safety and security, please contact BJF Assistant Executive Director Daniel Odrezin at DanielO@bjf.org or (205) 803-1511.
Click to view the webcast.
Click for Dr. Satloff’s article in the Washington Post.