President-elect Trump has declared that he wants to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the true capital of the Jewish state. Nations around the world designate their own capitals. Countries which have representation in another country have their embassies in the capital. The exception to this rule is Israel where all but a handful of nations have their embassies not in Jerusalem but Tel Aviv.
Beginning in 1983, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan championed a bill urging the Congress to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel and therefore move the U.S. embassy there. The bill, which finally passed in 1995 by a sizeable margin, contained an important caveat. It stipulated that if a president believes that moving the embassy is detrimental to the peace process, he could request a waiver from Congress every six months from proceeding with the move from Tel Aviv. Since the Clinton Administration all presidents have requested and obtained this waiver as did most recently again President Obama. While Members of Congress of both parties as well as many party platforms have urged Presidents to make the move, no President’s request for a waiver has been denied.
The president-elect’s comments concerning his desire to proceed with the move has elicited enthusiastic support from Prime Minister Netanyahu as well as from many political and religious elements in Israel and within the American Jewish community. Bibi has used this Trump pronouncement as well as his campaign promise to tear up the Iran nuclear agreement, as evidence that Israel will have a very supportive friend in the Trump White House.
The problem with this response–to what is largely a symbolic move–is that it will not encourage forward movement on the peace process; in fact it could well provoke a violent response from the Palestinian leaders as well as the people on the street. It also will likely alienate many of the forces in the Arab world with whom Netanyahu has succeeded in cultivating growing positive relations. Trump might well like the idea and it indeed may be the correct thing to do, but it will likely undermine more than it will solve; at least at this time. Similarly, this step probably will stir up further alienation towards Israel in Europe and among Israel’s new and active trading partners in Asia and Africa.
Similarly, Trump’s reported announcement today that he will appoint his lawyer and friend David Friedman to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel also suggests an insensitivity to the delicacy of that position and little recognition of the seriousness and depth of the conflict. Friedman is a right-wing religious Jew—perhaps even more right wing than Netanyahu–who may well find favor among the hard line elements in Bibi’s governing coalition. This post, however, requires the ability to have deep sensitivities to all the political and religious forces in Israel as well as their counterparts in the U.S.
All good lawyers are not necessarily strong or effective diplomats. Friedman may well covet the position, but it is unlikely to be in Israel’s or American Jewry’s best interest.