Trump’s embassy waiver is another key policy disagreement with Israel

In 1972, then-congressman Gerald Ford called for moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Two years later, Ford — now president — was asked by Israel’s ambassador in Washington at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, about the embassy’s relocation.

“In the Oval Office you view things differently than from the House of Representatives,” Rabin quoted Ford as replying.

Twenty years after this episode, Congress passed a law stipulating the embassy be moved to Jerusalem, but allowing presidents to delay the relocation every six months.

Giving credence to Ford, on Thursday, Donald Trump became the fourth US president to sign a presidential waiver ordering the delay, just as his predecessors have done 36 times since the late 1990s.

Disappointing Jewish and Evangelical supporters in Israel and the US, but not really surprising anyone, Trump set his signature underneath the exact same “presidential determination” that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama made before him.

It states that it is “necessary, in order to protect the national security interests of the United States, to suspend for a period of 6 months” the implementation of the Jerusalem Embassy Act.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US President Barack Obama in New York, on September 21, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

In doing so, Trump, seen just a few months ago by many on the Israeli right as a potential dream president, once again publicly disagreed with the Israeli government.

The president has already publicly urged a most unhappy Netanyahu to rein in settlements, and openly differed with him over Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s readiness for peace.

The White House, aware that Trump’s reneging on his campaign pledge to relocate the embassy would be harshly criticized in many quarters, issued a press release saying that the promise has not been broken, just delayed.

Signing the presidential waiver should not be viewed as “a retreat from the President’s strong support for Israel and for the United States-Israel alliance,” the statement read.

In this May 23, 2017 photo, President Donald Trump arrives to speak at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

But the next sentence, ostensibly formulated in the hope of assuaging criticism of the move, instead emphasized the sharp difference in how the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem view the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“President Trump made this decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America’s national security interests,” the press release stated. “But, as he has repeatedly stated his intention to move the embassy, the question is not if that move happens, but only when.”

The US embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, June 14, 2016. (Flash 90)

In other words: Not moving the embassy will help the US broker a permanent status peace agreement, the administration reasons.

The Israeli government has persistently argued the exact opposite.

“Moving the American embassy to Jerusalem would not harm the peace process. On the contrary, it would advance it by correcting a historical injustice and by shattering the Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel,” Netanyahu’s office declared on May 14.

The next day, the PMO in an unusual moved released segments from the protocol of Netanyahu’s February 14 meeting with Trump in the Oval Office, which showed that the prime minister told the president that moving the embassy to Jerusalem “would not lead to bloodshed in the region, as some were trying to intimidate [Trump] into believing.”

Netanyahu’s office also published a summary of a meeting between Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer and then-National Security Advisor-designate Michael Flynn on January 16.

“[Dermer] explained why moving the embassy would help advance peace and not the opposite,” states the summary, taken by Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Nagel. “This would send the message that we are in Jerusalem to stay. Moving the embassy would force the other side to contend with the lie they’ve constructed — that Israel has no connection to Jerusalem — and will cause them to understand that Israel will be here forever with Jerusalem as its capital.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and US President Donald Trump speak upon the latter's arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport on May 22, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

On Thursday, minutes after the White House announced that Trump had signed the waiver, Netanyahu doubled down on his argument, going as far as saying that keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv “drives peace further away by helping keep alive the Palestinian fantasy that the Jewish people and the Jewish state have no connection to Jerusalem.”

While the Prime Minister’s Office said it appreciates Trump’s “friendship to Israel and his commitment to moving the embassy in the future,” the PMO’s statement about peace being more difficult to achieve highlighted a fundamental policy disagreement between Jerusalem and Washington when it comes to the best way to achieve that goal.

It is unclear what exactly led to Trump’s decision to sign the waiver. Maybe it came at the behest of the so-called “realist” camp within the US administration, which warned him he would no longer be considered an honest broker if he moved the goalposts so far in Israel’s favor. Or perhaps he was influenced by the many Arab leaders he met over the last few months, all of whom told him he could bury his hope of reaching the ultimate deal if he started off by tacitly recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.

‘I have always wanted to move our embassy to west Jerusalem,’ Bill Clinton said in a 2000 interview

But according to the White House’s explanation, Trump’s decision to sign the waiver is in line with the traditional thinking behind every president’s decision to delay the embassy’s move. Many were genuinely inclined to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem but refrained from doing so because they believed it would further complicate efforts to reach peace.

“I have always wanted to move our embassy to west Jerusalem,” Bill Clinton said in a 2000 interview, months before the end of his second term in the White House. “I have not done so because I didn’t want to do anything to undermine our ability to help to broker a secure and fair and lasting peace for Israelis and for Palestinians.”

President Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat in 2000 (White House / Wikipedia)

Relocating the embassy is a question of when and not if, the White House said Thursday, and many Israeli officials on Thursday expressed the belief that Trump will eventually keep his promise. Indeed, it is not unthinkable that the president, after his bid to rapidly reach Israeli-Palestinian peace inevitably fails, will eventually agree to have the embassy transferred to Jerusalem.

On the other hand, Trump, as unorthodox as he may be in other areas, has so far mostly played by the book when it comes to Israel/Palestine. Thursday’s waiver was certainly part of the familiar US presidential routine.

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