The official coronation of the United States embassy in Jerusalem on May 14th completed a long-awaited milestone in US-Israeli relations, but the relocation from Tel-Aviv continues to garner controversy and has polarized international opinion.
On May 14th, the anniversary of Israeli independence according to the Hebrew Calendar, Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, were in attendance as emissaries of the Trump administration for the opening of the embassy in the Arnona neighborhood in South Jerusalem. Also in attendance were several major donors to the Republican Party, White House officials, and American military personnel dispatched to provide additional security for the cause célèbre. President Trump made his presence felt via a recorded video message. It is a day that, by law, had been in the books for more than a decade.
History of the U.S. Embassy Relocation
The ceremony’s origins span back to the passage of the Jerusalem Embassy Act, passed by a Republican Majority Congress on October 23rd, 1995, and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton. The act called for the United States to move their Israeli embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem by a deadline of May 31, 1999. However, the stipulation that Jerusalem be in a “unified” state and the caveat that a six-month delay could be issued by the president in the case that “such suspension is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States” have served as bi-annual tools by which to prolong the embassy’s relocation.
Every six months, each sitting president from Clinton to Donald Trump has been called to face the decision, and ultimately each signed a waiver postponing the process. However, with the latest waiver, signed on June 1st of last year, set to expire, the Trump administration chose not to prolong the move any longer.
Reactions to the Move
Despite uncertainty regarding when, exactly, the relocation would begin or how long the entire process would take, the backlash proved immediate. Both Israel and Palestine, which has yet to be formally recognized as an independent nation, claim Jerusalem as their capital. The constant tension between the geographical neighbors has been the impetus for previous presidents kicking the can of embassy relocation in Israel down the road, implicitly endorsing the sentiment that moving the embassy would mean inciting widespread protests and narrowing the opportunity for peace between the neighboring states.
Such concerns of mass protest were proven true when, only a day after President Trump’s December 6th announcement, demonstrations in the West Bank resulted in the burning of American flags and Donald Trump likenesses, clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops, and a general sense of chaos. Protests continued throughout the New Year, with interactions between both sides turning increasingly violent.
The day of the embassy’s unveiling served as another reminder of the stark dichotomy of emotions evoked by the relocation. As giddy supporters of the move milled about wearing “U.S. Embassy, Jerusalem, Israel” ball caps, a tone of celebration and unification rang supreme.
“This is a great day. A great day for Jerusalem. A great day for the state of Israel. A day that will be engraved in our national memory for generations,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, addressing the audience.
Kushner, representing the American contingent, mirrored the message.
“When President Trump makes a promise, he keeps it,” Kushner said, a reference to a campaign pledge to open a Jerusalem embassy. “Today also demonstrates American leadership. By moving our embassy to Jerusalem, we have shown the world once again that the United States can be trusted.”
Meanwhile, the chaos unfolding at the Gaza border could not have been further from a celebration. 52 Palestinians were reportedly killed as the result of violent conflicts between Israeli Defense Forces and enraged protestors seeking to make their displeasure known as the ceremony was in progress. While the United Nations alluded to “excessive force” being used by Israeli troops, representatives of those same forces insisted that they were following protocol, adding that three terrorists were killed while five “terrorist targets” in total were “struck”.
UN Reactions and the Trump Administration
The contrasting scenes are consistent with the fragmentation between even historical allies regarding the wisdom of the Trump administration’s decision to relocate the embassy. An emergency UN assembly was convened mere weeks after the White House made clear its intentions in early December. The member nations were called to the UN Assembly in New York City with the express purpose of voting on a resolution to condemn the decision. It was an emergency convention to which Trump and many of his associates took exception.
“To be clear,” United States Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, wrote in a letter to General Assembly members, “we are not asking that other countries move their embassies to Jerusalem, though we think it would be appropriate. We are simply asking that you acknowledge the historical friendship, partnership and support we have extended and respect our decision about our own embassy.”
“As you consider your vote, I want you to know that the president and U.S. take this vote personally,” she added.
Yet, when the votes were tallied, 128 nations voted in condemnation of the embassy’s move, 58 nations abstained, while only seven nations not including Israel and the United States voted against the resolution, essentially endorsing relocation. Nations who voted for the resolution, formally making known their disagreement with the United States, include long-time allies United Kingdom, France, Germany, Ireland, Belgium, Portugal, and Spain.
It’s a historically uncommon trend of public dissent between the White House and a segment of its closest allies which has emerged under the Trump presidency. And, another increasingly frequent pattern – the White House resisting outside pressure in forming its own, uniquely American foreign policy – also persisted as it became clear most nations did not agree with the choice to open a new embassy in Jerusalem.
“Let them vote against us; we’ll save a lot,” Trump reportedly said at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, alluding to cuts in aid that may result from such open frowning upon of America’s decision regarding their own embassy’s location.
“We don’t care.”
The Trump administration made clear both before and after a security agreement for the new embassy was approved by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on February 22nd, 2018 that it believed the relocation would not pose an increased threat to American security. Proponents of the move have also contested the notion that, considering the ongoing, fundamental conflicts between Israel and Palestine, any significant peace talks would be disrupted by the decision to relocate the American embassy.
“The decision does nothing to harm the peace process. America will put our embassy in Jerusalem. That is what the American people want us to do and it is the right thing to do. No vote in the U.N. will make any difference on that,” Haley said. “But,” she added, “this vote will make a difference on how Americans look on the U.N.”
And, the vote will also likely shape the way that Israelis, who are near-universally in favor of the embassy relocation, view certain member nations. PM Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently heaped praise upon President Trump, whose foreign policy thus far has been decidedly pro-Israel. This allegiance is likely to have informed Netanyahu’s confidence that the embassy move would come sooner than later, even as former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said such a development was “probably no more than three years out”, an opinion he qualified as “pretty ambitious”. Perhaps Netanyahu was aware of factors or developments which Tillerson was not, because the Israeli Prime Minster’s predictions would prove more salient.
“My confident assessment is that it will move much faster than people think, within a year from today,” Netanyahu told Israeli reporters in January while on a trip to India. As it turns out, despite the protests of many, the relocation came even than Netanyahu’s prediction, which now appears liberal.
However, even with the embassy technically established in the former consular premises located in Jerusalem and the United States ambassador to Israel, David Friedman and his closest aides installed in makeshift offices, much lies ahead. Most of the embassy staff remains stationed in the Tel Aviv office, now considered a branch of the main Jerusalem compound. But, until details surrounding the expansion of the Jerusalem embassy are parsed for legality – Israeli-American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has offered to pay for construction of the projected $500 million compound – and construction is underway, the embassy will be known more for its symbolic significance than its functionality.
Construction of a new embassy is a minor hurdle when compared to the resistance which continues to face the United States and Israel in their efforts to sway global opinion toward establishing Jerusalem as the location where other foreign emissaries carry out their affairs. Angola fired two of its senior diplomats after they attended the opening ceremony on the 14th. Most Middle Eastern nations – Palestine, Iran and Turkey in particular – have unapolagetically condemned the embassy’s move as hostile and provocative.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is also the rotating term of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). He has taken issue with the treatment of Palestinians in protests and often violent demonstrations related to the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city. Erdogan has gone so far as to compare the Israeli Defense Forces to Nazis, a choice of words which drew the ire of Prime Minister Netanyahu.
“There is no difference at all between the persecution inflicted on the Jews in Europe 75 years ago and the brutality faced by our brothers in Gaza,” Erdogan said, referring to the deaths of 52 Palestinians on the same day Israel was celebrating the Jersualem embassy’s grand opening. “The children of people who were tortured in concentration camps in every way during World War II unfortunately today resort to methods against innocent Palestinians that are in no way inferior to those of the Nazis.”
He also made clear the intention of he and his allies in the Arab world to bring the matter up before the UN Security Council. The president of Iran echoed similar criticism of Israel, indicating that resistance to Israel’s domestic and foreign agendas will not end any time soon.
“If Israel faces a united front of Islamic nations, it will never be able to continue its crimes,” Iranian president Hasan Rouhani said.
But despite criticism and veiled threats of retaliation, other nations are already considering moving their embassies to Jerusalem. Guatemala opened its embassy in Jerusalem on May 16th, while Paraguay followed by dedicating their embassy on the 21st. Each is located in Jerusalem’s Malha neighborhood. Romania is also weighing a diplomatic relocation to Jerusalem, while the Czech Republic has re-opened its honorary consulate in Jerusalem, with the Czech president voicing his support for moving the embassy, too.
While the debate over which nation has the sovereign right to claim Jerusalem as their capital remains as polarized as ever, it seems that America was not alone in its desire to acknowledge, in the form of a permanent embassy, the city as part of Israel. The Trump administration, and the administrations of the nations which have relocated their embassies to Israel after the United States’ move, regard the issue as one of loyalty to allies. This has necessarily meant the eschewing of narratives which contend that an Israeli-occupied Jerusalem is a roadblock to peace, as previous administrations have contended.
“I promised to look at the world’s challenges with fresh eyes,” Trump said last year. “We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies of the past.”
- Dozens of Marines added to boost security at US embassies in Israel, Jordan, Turkey – Washington Examiner
- Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 – Congress.gov
- Israeli forces kill dozens of Palestinians in protests as US embassy opens in Jerusalem – as it happened – The Guardian
- Trump Threatens to End American Aid: ‘We’re Watching Those Votes’ at the U.N. – The New York Times
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