To appreciate the significance of Donald Trump’s announcement today on U.S. policy in Israel, it’s important to appreciate the context. In 1995, Congress passed a law moving the United States’ Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, from Tel Aviv. The legislation, however, came with a catch: U.S. presidents could delay the move for security reasons.
And that’s precisely what every president has done since. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama each signed waivers, keeping the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. There’s no great mystery as to why: because of Jerusalem’s unique significance – politically, historically, theologically – putting the U.S. embassy in the city would signal that the United States sees Jerusalem as Israel’s official capital. That would touch off a series of repercussions that would risk destabilizing the region and irreparably harming the Middle East peace process.
President Donald Trump will recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on Wednesday, while also delaying moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city, officials said.
Though Trump will not relocate the embassy any time soon – one White House official told reporters it could take years – the president still intends to fulfill that promise made early in his administration.
Senior administration officials called Trump’s expected recognition of Jerusalem an affirmation of “reality” – both historical and current, pointing out that the city is already home to Israel’s parliament, supreme court and other government sites. Palestinians, however, also claim Jerusalem as their capital, and Trump’s anticipated announcement has touched off an uproar in the Arab world.
For the record, the president will apparently sign the same waiver his recent predecessors signed, but (a) it’s for logistical reasons, not security reasons; and (b) this doesn’t much matter since he’s apparently going to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and begin the process of formally relocating the U.S. embassy.
Trump’s approach to politics is often transactional. Always looking for some kind of “deal,” the Republican president routinely looks for ways to advance his agenda through some kind of exchange of interests.
What makes today’s announcement so unsettling is that Trump doesn’t seem to be advancing his or the United States’ interests at all. Many of our closest allies have urged him not to do this, but the president is ignoring them – in exchange for nothing.
NBC News ran a good piece this morning, examining whether Trump’s move advances U.S. interests in any way.
It doesn’t, according to analysts. Some also warned Trump’s decision could damage peace-building efforts in the Middle East as well as America’s credibility as a respected world power.
“It’s very difficult to imagine what U.S. interest it serves if you assume it has a basic interest in promoting a peaceful settlement to the conflict,” said Dana Allin, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
“It flies in the face of his other goal of peace in the region,” said Leslie Vinjamuri, associate fellow in U.S. and Americas program at the London-based Chatham House think tank. “If he does make this announcement it’s going to undermine U.S. interests to bring peace and stability to the region.”
Slate’s Isaac Chotiner wrote a related piece last night, noting that Trump isn’t just undermining his own efforts at a peace plan, he’s also inadvertently helping Iran.
So why do it? To keep a campaign promise Trump almost certainly didn’t understand? Because he thinks satisfying far-right Israelis will help him with Jewish voters in the United States?
When it comes to foreign policy, Trump has been willing to upend decades of bipartisan consensus on a range of international relationships – China, NATO, Australia, the Korean peninsula, Europe, etc. – but today’s shift is clearly among the most dangerous.