The location of the United States embassy in Israel has long been a sub-drama within the larger politics of the Middle East. In the 1990s, Congress passed a law apparently directing the move. That law, however, contains a provision allowing the president to waive the requirement “in the interests of national security” for six months. Presidents of both parties have dutifully issued that notice, ever six months, for the past two decades.
The New York Times reports that President Trump still planned to move the embassy to Jerusalem when conditions were right. And that is precisely what past presidents have done, without ever moving the embassy.
The set-up between Congress and the White House is a perfect example of the Washington game of deniability. Congress has acted, and legislators can say to Israeli-supporting constituents that they have “moved” the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem – without ever really doing so.
And presidents can say that they fully intend to do so – except not right now. A White House statement quoted a spokesman as saying that the move should not be considered “a retreat from the president’s strong support for Israel” and its alliance with the United States.
The official status of Jerusalem is one of the key hot-button issues underlying the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. It’s also one of the key points of contention between Israel and the international community.
The official United States position dates back to the United Nations Partition Plan in 1947; under which Jerusalem was supposed to be a “corpus separatum” under international control. Instead, the city was divided along the 1949 Armistice Line, with West Jerusalem made the official capital of Israel, and East Jerusalem, including the Old City and Temple Mount, remaining part of the Jordanian-controlled West Bank.
In 1967, Israel took control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War. They subsequently expanded and annexed the entirety of the united municipality of Jerusalem.
Yet this action remains unrecognized by the international community – including the United States! And this is why all foreign embassies in Israel are instead located in Tel Aviv, which is undisputedly recognized as Israeli territory.
The official United States line on Jerusalem has always been that its sovereignty has legally passed to nobody since the end of the British Mandate; and that the final status of the city is “pending future negotiations.”
So there’s really no surprise about keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv. But for Trump, it is a reversal of his position on the campaign trail. It may represent another instance of Trump accommodating himself to establishment Washington position. Like the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization and NATO, Trump offered a red-meat position as a candidate. That can’t be reconciled with the complexities and nuances of international diplomacy and America’s longstanding commitments and positions.
So on this issue, at least, Washington swamp-dwellers live to fight another day.