by Amos Yadlin
Though President Trump has approached the prospect of moving the U.S. embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv with greater caution in recent weeks, if he decides to fulfill his campaign promise to do so then Israel should welcome the decision. The shift in policy would be a long-awaited recognition of Israel’s historic capital by its closest ally. Although the embassy relocation is accompanied by some risks, the dangers are often overblown by those opposed to the step and can be further mitigated through smart and cooperative diplomacy. While it is true that every country must prioritize a long list of competing interests, there can be no doubt that Israel should rank U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as its capital as a supreme national interest.
Israel’s greatest and longest-serving Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, dealt with this issue when formulating a response to the 1949 UNGA resolution internationalizing Jerusalem and thereby separating Israel from its capital. He did not concede to the declaration nor the gloomy predictions of the consequences for defying it. Instead, Ben-Gurion pronounced the city a vital element of the country’s historical narrative and immediately relocated the Knesset from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, yet the repercussions for doing so were hardly of the catastrophic nature that some had warned.
In the current era, in which Israel’s legitimacy is increasingly called into question, as is evidenced by the recent UNESCO resolution, U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s historic capital is all the more important. However, experts opposing the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem note that such an action runs the risk of obstructing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, causing the deterioration of Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors, and inciting Muslim terror groups worldwide.
In the Palestinian arena, claims that the embassy move will derail a peace process that has been comatose for nearly a decade ring hollow. In fact, the exact opposite might be true: Relocating the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem could prompt the Palestinians to re-evaluate their strategy of refusing direct negotiations in favor of internationalizing the conflict, which has paralyzed the peace process since 2008. It would disabuse the Palestinian leadership of the notion that the international community can deliver on all of their demands, as Washington counteracts the recent UN resolutions that remain mere abstractions with concrete steps that demonstrate commitment to Israel and endorse the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. This reversal of fortunes which coincides with the PA’s growing isolationcould push the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
Also, the argument that the U.S. would undermine its own credibility as a just broker for peace by moving the embassy ignores the fact that this step would simply right an historic injustice that for decades has favored the Palestinian side – the U.S. government’s only diplomatic mission in Israel’s capital city is a consulate that serves the PA. Finally, any predictions of a looming intifada ignore the reality that the Palestinians have little interest in escalating the conflict in light of the meager results that violence has achieved for them thus far as compared with the heavy toll it has taken.
Israel’s relations with Cairo and Amman are key to both Israeli security and regional stability, and these ties could become even more critical in light of Trump’s discussion of a broader regional security arrangement with a role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; it is on this plane that the embassy relocation poses the greatest risks, however, here too they are limited and can be mitigated further.
First, the likelihood of a popular backlash against the Arab regimes for collaborating with Israel has been greatly reduced by the string failed revolutions and civil wars that diminished the Arab world’s appetite for destabilizing political activism. Second, existing risks can be further minimized through extensive consultations between the U.S., Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. The U.S. should clarify to the governments and publics of Jordan and Egypt that relocating the U.S. embassy to West Jerusalem does not indicate recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the entire city nor does it impact Jordan’s role in administering or Muslims’ access to holy sites.
The step could also be paired with parallel initiatives that seek to improve economic opportunities thereby reducing the number of disaffected youth or potential agitators in those countries. Third, it would be illogical for Arab leaders dependent on U.S. support to downgrade ties with Jerusalem precisely as the U.S. demonstrates its strong commitment to Israel. Therefore, any tensions regarding the Palestinian issue will likely result in the Arab states briefly recalling their ambassadors as they have in the past.
As for the assertions that the U.S. opening an embassy in Jerusalem will incite worldwide jihadist groups, they does not hold water in practice or principle. Such a cause and effect relationship is fair easier to proclaim than to prove, especially when keeping in mind that ISIS and al-Qaeda had no problem recruiting tens of thousands of people into their ranks prior to any change in U.S. policy toward Jerusalem. More importantly, the principle of not taking actions that the U.S. or Israel believes to be correct because some claim it will serve as a recruitment tool for radicals runs the risk of prioritizing Arab public opinion polls over one’s own moral compass. The arguments against doing something because it would be a “boon” to terrorist groups turn decisionmakers into hostages and is essentially capitulation to terrorist demands.
While Trump continues to study the embassy issue, Israel should indicate that it would be appreciative of the move which would demonstrate renewed support and end its distinction as the only state without a U.S. embassy in its preferred capital. Israel should also present a realistic assessment of the threats and opportunities of such a step, which would contrast with the prevalent assessments that overhype risks and gloss over prospective benefits, and it should offer suggestions for managing threats and seizing opportunities in cooperation with regional partners. Unfortunately, if Israel must wait for a peace agreement with the Palestinians in order to achieve recognition of its capital city, the PA will continue to hold the power to veto international acceptance of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.