In a letter to president-elect Donald Trump, Palestinian National Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has laid out a warning in regards to moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. According to the Palestinian news agency Wafa—as reported by Al Jazeera—Abbas argued that moving the embassy would have a “disastrous impact on the peace process, on the two-state solution and on the stability and security of the entire region”. Meanwhile, Israel’s Channel 2 News is now reporting a possible compromise that Trump’s administration is considering—not moving the embassy to Jerusalem, but having David Friedman, his pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, live and work out of an existing Jerusalem consulate. This, as of publication, has not been confirmed or denied by Donald Trump or his spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson. Moving the US embassy 67 kilometres to Jerusalem may seem like an extraneous, and deeply performative gesture, but for many supporters of Israel—both inside and outside the state—it would solidify the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, and reaffirm a commitment to the state that many right wing ideologues have accused the Obama administration of lacking.
On January 3, Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Dean Heller (R-Nevada), and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) introduced the Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act to the 1st session of the 115th Congress, with the goal of passing into law a measure to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while also demanding that the president immediately begin the process of relocating the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act, which calls for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the establishment of a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem “…no later than May 31, 1999”, was adopted in 1995. This public law has been delayed on 22 occasions due to a provision in the act under section 7, known as the “Presidential Waiver”, which allows for suspension of the act should it be “necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States.” The new legislation requests that the section 7 Presidential waiver be struck, and provides no no similar section authorising the President to suspend the implementation of the act.
Nadia Hijab, Executive Director of Palestinian policy network Al-Shabaka, tells Mondoweiss that it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Trump’s administration will defer the Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act as past presidents have done, even after campaign promises. Hijab explains that “while there seems to be a concerted effort by pro-Israel commentators in the mainstream media to say that such a move would “be good” for peace” there is likely going to be major backlash in the region against both U.S. interests and pro-U.S. states, and the Palestinian Authority, “who will lose the fig leaf covering their reliance on the US-led peace process.”
More importantly, Hijab notes that “moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem would violate international law, under which East Jerusalem is occupied territory; nor is Israel’s claim to sovereignty over West Jerusalem recognized. One of the important outcomes of UN Resolution 2334 which was passed last month is this: Should the Trump Administration go ahead with this move, countries that might have been tempted to follow suit will think twice.”
Dr. Greg Shupak, writer and activist who teaches media studies at Canada’s University of Guelph, sees moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing the city as the capital of Israel as an affront to Palestinians “as East Jerusalem has long been a key site of Palestinian political, economic, and cultural life.” Shupak clarifies that while the official U.S. position has been to oppose the Israeli settlement expansion in East Jerusalem, “neither American party has stopped Israel from building illegal settlements there, demolishing Palestinian houses in the city, or repressing Palestinian Jerusalemites”. On the contrary, he says, “both Republican and Democratic administrations have enabled such activities through lavish economic, political, and military support for Israel.” Finally, Shupak predicts that should Trump’s administration move the embassy, things will likely become worse for Palestinians as this political maneuver could possibly green-light the state’s violent takeover of the city.
Recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and moving the U.S. Embassy to the occupied city, is undoubtedly a gesture that will strengthen the hard right, but it may also further isolate Israel.
Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, recently explained on the podcast Delete Your Account that it wouldn’t surprise him if Trump were to move the embassy, but he doesn’t believe that it will be as significant a move as most people think. “After everything the United States has done to support Israel…moving this building…is not going to change that much.” Abunimah argues that what it will do “if anything” is that it will highlight the United States and Israel’s status of isolation in the region, as other countries will be reluctant to follow suit.
“It increases the possibility that other countries—specifically the Europeans—that simply tag along behind the United States are going to have to start to make policy [decisions] for themselves…where they exact some form of consequence on Israel,” Abunimah predicts.