To Move or Not to Move: The United States Embassy in Israel

Dina Rosin (CMC ’20)

The United States Embassy in Israel is currently located in Tel Aviv, despite the state of Israel considering Jerusalem as its capital city. This is unusual because the U.S. typically situates embassies in capital cities and all other countries’ embassies to Israel are currently located in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is considered to be a holy city for three major religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This makes Israel’s claim that Jerusalem is its capital city especially contentious. Israel regards a “United Jerusalem” as its capital, which includes both its Western and Eastern denominations. While West Jerusalem has been within Israel Proper since Israel gained independence in 1948, East Jerusalem was annexed into Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967. Currently, the land in East Jerusalem is under a military occupation by the state of Israel, but Palestinians consider it to be their capital city as well. Since this military occupation is considered to be illegal under international law, the international community generally does not regard Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The U.S. has considered moving its embassy to Jerusalem previously. However, the reluctance of previous presidents and President Trump to enact this policy is indicative of the tension between supporting an ally’s claim to their capital city and the international repercussions that accompany this support.

In 1995, the 104th United States Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act (JEA). In doing so, this act recognized a “United Jerusalem” as the capital of Israel and reaffirmed the United States’ support for Israel’s claim to Jerusalem. This act initiated the relocation of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and provided the funding necessary for the move. Section 7 of the law, however, states that the President of the United States has “waiver authority,” meaning that the President has the discretion to suspend the movement of the embassy for six months at a time if he or she thinks “that such suspension is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States.” Essentially, the move can be pushed back indefinitely if the President so chooses. Thus, despite the passage of this law over 20 years ago, the U.S. embassy to Israel has remained in Tel Aviv, as Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama has all delayed the move.

In 2016, President Donald Trump campaigned on the promise of finally moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to signify his support for the state of Israel. In fact, Jerusalem was one of the cities he toured on his first overseas visit as Commander-in-Chief, and he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This trip was intended to both show the Prime Minister of President Trump’s loyalty to Israel and to reassure the international community of President Trump’s intentions to ease tensions between Israel and Palestine. While Trump has continued to affirm strong support for Israel, he, too, has signed the waiver delaying the embassy’s move, contrary to his former campaign promises. According to a statement issued by the White House, “no one should consider this step to be in any way a retreat from the President’s strong support for Israel and for the United States-Israel alliance.” However, it is clear that international pressure on the U.S. to help broker peaceful relations between Israel and Palestine has become an international policy consideration for President Trump.

The White House has stated that the embassy move is inevitable, and “the question is not if that move happens, but only when.” The move of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is generally seen as an impediment to creating peace in the region. From a United States standpoint, moving the embassy makes it more difficult to act as a mediator between Israelis and Palestinians, especially since Jerusalem’s status as a capital city has been a main point of contention in past peace negotiations. Peaceful political negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian territories would likely alter the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East, but it has yet to be seen if Donald Trump, or, the United States, could actually play a role in achieving such peace. Therefore, though Congress was able to gather the domestic support necessary to pass the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995, the international support for a president to act on this law has yet to reach the level necessary to make this a feasible policy move.  

One thought on “To Move or Not to Move: The United States Embassy in Israel

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