Moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would correct a historical injustice going back almost 70 years, but it would be a mistake to do so without a broader diplomatic context, said Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“I don’t think this administration or any administration would be foolish enough to focus only on the embassy,” Satloff said Jan. 27 during an online discussion arranged by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Such a focus, he said, could spark a “rather vociferous response” among Arabs not because of the specifics of the embassy, but because of concerns about the lack of a broader vision.
The wise U.S. strategy, he said, would involve talking to partners in the Middle East about general policy directions, such as repairing relationships with allies rather than building new ties with adversaries like Iran. If moving the embassy is seen as just one move to restore alliances, particularly if it takes place amid efforts to strengthen U.S. ties with such Arab nations as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, “the move will be seen as more palatable.”
Palestinian leaders have threatened to unleash violence in response to an embassy move, and Israeli military analysts reportedly have warned that the threat is real. Even though Satloff said other Arabs have less sympathy for the Palestinians today than during previous uprisings, there are concerns that Arab anger could target U.S. diplomats in other countries.
Palestinian sensitivity to anything involving Jerusalem arose again Sunday, Feb. 5, when a Palestinian Authority official, Adnan al-Husseini, demanded an apology from new U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for saying two days earlier that it was clear the Temple destroyed by the Romans in Jerusalem was a Jewish facility.
Al-Husseini told China’s Xinhua news agency that Guterres “violated all legal, diplomatic and humanitarian customs” while ignoring UNESCO’s declaration that the Temple Mount, the site of Al-Aqsa mosque, is “of pure Islamic heritage.”
President Donald Trump promised during the campaign and after his election to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but he said Jan. 26 that it was too early to talk about that action. Under a 1995 law, Trump must decide by June 1 whether to start the process of moving the embassy or follow the examples of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama and waive the move for six months for national security reasons.
Satloff said it’s a good sign that Trump has not rushed to move the embassy. “There’s quite a list of things you have to do, allies you have to talk with, to do this intelligently and effectively.”
Selecting a site, presumably in an area of Jerusalem controlled by Israel since 1949, and building an embassy would take years, Satloff said. But Trump could declare one of the State Department’s existing properties in Jerusalem to be the temporary embassy and make either the suite the United States leases at the David Citadel Hotel or the apartment Ambassador-designate David Friedman holds as the official ambassador’s residence.
Satloff emphasized that the question of whether the U.S. Embassy should be in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem has nothing to do with the 1967 Six-Day War or the settlements. He said President Harry Truman heroically recognized Israel 11 minutes after it declared independence, then chose not to put the embassy in Jerusalem, even after the cease-fire in 1949, because the 1947 U.N. partition plan had called for the holy city to be part of a special international zone that was separate from the Jewish and Arab states.
“That’s an injustice that needs to be corrected,” Satloff said. “This is a ’48 problem, not a ’67 problem. … The move of the embassy repairs a ’48 problem.”
Any announcement of an embassy move should include respect for bilateral negotiations to determine all Israeli-Palestinian issues, including Jerusalem, and should emphasize that the status quo on the city’s holy sites is not changing, Satloff said.