To the delight of conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Vice President Mike Pence said on a visit to Israel that the United States will move its embassy to Jerusalem by the end of next year. That would fulfill a campaign pledge of President Trump, who made the announcement about moving the embassy earlier.
Like a number of the president’s campaign promises, the embassy move – favored by Netanyahu’s government and evangelicals in the United States – is a more complicated issue than Trump would like to admit it is, if he even has an interest in the nuances of it.
Yes, Jerusalem is the holy city to all three Abrahamic faiths, but it is a real and a symbolic center of the ongoing and too often violent dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. For Israel, it’s very simple: Jerusalem is its capital, undivided. For Palestinians, East Jerusalem, with its Arab majority, is supposed to be the capital of a future independent Palestine.
Because the city is at the heart of an ongoing dispute, the United States and other countries have not put their embassies there, knowing that to do so would anger Palestinians, as such a move would say that dividing Jerusalem would be off the table in any peace negotiations.
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Thus, Trump’s announcement that the U.S. embassy was moving, while it played to some of his hard-core supporters, stirred a lot of anger among Arab leaders.
So Pence’s underlining of the plans to move the embassy have done the same, though the vice president attempted to be conciliatory.
He said, “Our message to President (Mahmoud) Abbas and the Palestinian Authority is the door’s open. The door’s open. President Trump is absolutely committed to doing everything the United States can to achieve a peace agreement that brings an end to decades of conflict.”
Has Abbas of the Palestinian Authority been a hard-liner? Of course. And though he has the backing of the European Union to continue the push to have East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, the United States has a historic and cultural connection to the state of Israel. President Harry Truman recognized the state of Israel on May 14, 1948. Ever since, the United States has been Israel’s strongest ally and most substantial financial supporter, to the tune of $3 to $4 billion a year.
But what of Trump’s move? Previous presidents, Democrat and Republican, have tried with varying degrees of success to bring Israelis and Arabs together. And they have recognized, in not moving the embassy, that concessions on both sides are imperative if a “lasting peace” is to be achieved.
And herein lies a problem with Trump’s stance. It draws a line that appears entirely inflexible, and Palestinians are unlikely to come to any peace table knowing that they will have to give up the idea of East Jerusalem being theirs. Meanwhile, Netanyahu – whose own hard line created tensions with President Obama – is likely to simply harden his own stance, period.
The president’s bluster is never harmless. His tweeting about about silly things such as television shows or his attacks on Hillary Clinton a year after his election are divisive and damaging to his own credibility. But when he wades into foreign policy, particularly as it applies to the Middle East, a potential powder keg, the risks are all the greater. He should leave that task to professional diplomats and experienced hands who understand the tensions in the region, and both sides.