Trump, Netanyahu, and the Embassy Move That Wasn’t
January 26, 2017 § 1 Comment
As President Trump had promised multiple times during the presidential campaign, the issue of moving the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was indeed on the agenda during his very first week in office. The result, however, was not what had been promised. Rather than following through on the pledge to move the embassy immediately, and fulfilling the implicit promise of Sean Spicer’s teaser on the day before the inauguration to “stay tuned” on the issue, the Trump administration instead slammed on the brakes. On Monday, Spicer said that no decision had been made on moving the embassy, that the White House was still early in the decision making process, that Trump could do it right now by executive order if he wanted to but was explicitly declining to do so, and that the administration had to consult more with the State Department. Spicer later reiterated the point in response to a question, saying, “If it was already a decision, we wouldn’t be going through the process.”
While some in the Israeli government, such as Miri Regev and Ze’ev Elkin, chose to take a glass half full approach by focusing on the statement that the administration is in the beginning stages of the embassy move, others – rightly in my view – saw this as the first step in a drawn out process that may well draw itself out until the very end of Trump’s tenure as president. Certainly it was quite the turnaround from Trump’s repeated promises on the campaign trail to move the embassy on day one, and presumably came as a shock to the various pro-Israel voters and organizations that ranked the embassy move as high on their list of reasons for casting their vote for Trump or backing Trump on November 8. Most interestingly, the announcement that any embassy move was not going to be imminent came after Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu had their first phone conversation since Trump took office on Friday.
Like much else surrounding Trump and as I have reiterated before, there is no way of knowing yet precisely what he is going to do on Israel, but this early encounter over the embassy hints at some emerging dynamics that will have impacts on related issues down the line. Not only does this episode suggest that the embassy will stay put for the duration of the Trump administration, it suggests that the Netanyahu government’s unbridled enthusiasm over Trump’s election may have been premature.
Do not underestimate the importance that Netanyahu’s coalition partners place on the issue of the embassy moving to Jerusalem. It figured prominently in the congratulatory messages issued by government officials to Trump after his election, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked made it a centerpiece of her speech to the Institute for National Security Studies conference on Tuesday. An immediate announcement on the embassy was part of Naftali Bennett’s assessment that the next four years of Israeli policy under Trump would be established in the first four weeks of the administration, as Israel would be able to take advantage of a new White House trying to find its footing and create a new set of norms surrounding Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. Yet despite the repeated campaign promises and the chaos engulfing the first few days of the Trump presidency, the embassy remains in Tel Aviv indefinitely until further notice.
It is reasonable to assume that two things happened. The first is that the Trump administration heard from Sunni allies in the region – Jordan and Egypt in particular – immediately upon taking office, and that the first thing the White House heard from them was how disastrous moving the embassy would be to their own stability. Skeptics point out that there is no way of definitively knowing whether protests or unrest over an embassy move will materialize or how damaging they would be, but the Jordanian government firmly believes that the U.S. moving the embassy will not only damage their own position but place long term cooperation with Israel at risk. Despite the tangible success of the peace treaty and the various cooperative security and economic projects between Israel and Jordan, that cooperation comes at a high domestic political cost. If the American embassy is relocated to Jerusalem, Jordan cannot do anything that will endanger American assistance, so the only available move to the government to quell popular anger will be to downgrade its relationship with Israel. That will be bad for Israel and bad for Jordan, and an outcome that the Trump administration will want to avoid. It is not a stretch to say that King Abdullah is one of the most popular and credible foreign leaders with Congress, and undoubtedly the nascent Trump administration will view him similarly. The king is the keynote speaker at the national prayer breakfast next week, and it is unlikely that he would show up in the wake of being embarrassed at home by an embassy move.
This suggests that contrary to the hope in some quarters that the Israeli government would be given a blank check by Trump, other regional voices are going to be given weight even when their preferences contradict with the most hawkish pro-Israel position. Perhaps this is because Trump wants buy-in for his top regional foreign policy priority, which appears from his rhetoric to this point to be the fight against ISIS; perhaps this is because he was serious in his desire to make the “ultimate deal” and was told by the Jordanians, Palestinians, and others that an embassy move would destroy any chances of resuming negotiations toward a two-state solution; perhaps it is because a president who had no history of embracing the Israeli right until he ran for president was willing to say anything he thought helpful to get elected and sold the Israeli and American Jewish right a bill of goods. Whatever the answer, it makes no sense for Trump to delay on the embassy move if he is serious about it. The domestic political benefits of doing so evaporate the longer he waits, and by ardently promising to do so as recently as last week and then turning on a dime, he is actually damaging his position with many on the right and with the more hawkish segment of American Jewry. This looks like a repeat of the George W. Bush administration, where Candidate Bush promised to move the embassy while President Bush spent eight years examining the feasibility of it.
The second thing that likely happened is that Netanyahu gave his implicit okay for the embassy to stay where it is. This may come as a surprise to those who are used to hearing Netanyahu or Ambassador Ron Dermer talk about the importance of Jerusalem and the necessity of having the American embassy there, but behind the scenes the embassy is not one of Netanyahu’s priorities. It has been reported that during the Kerry negotiations, Netanyahu did not ask for the embassy issue to be put on the table even once, in contrast to Jonathan Pollard’s release, which he raised consistently in multiple negotiation efforts. The readout of Sunday’s Trump-Netanyahu call mentioned a host of issues, but the embassy move was curiously absent, which is especially surprising given the prominence it had been previously given both by American and Israeli officials. Calling for the U.S. to move the embassy is good politics for Netanyahu, but actually having it moved is a different story. Particularly given what he is hearing from the IDF on the potential fallout and unrest in the West Bank should the embassy move to Jerusalem, Netanyahu does not want to deal with massive protests and possibly a resumption of terror in Israeli cities while he is also going through a series of investigations that present the biggest threat to his continued tenure as prime minister that he has ever faced. While I don’t know that he would ever tell Trump not to move the embassy, he probably did not push back when Trump told him that it was not going to be his opening gambit on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
There is no guarantee of anything with Trump. What he thinks today will not necessarily be what he thinks tomorrow, and I do not think we can impute consistency to his methods or his decisions. For all I know, tomorrow he will announce that he has moved the embassy overnight. But examining the curious way in which events have unfolded so far, it is safe to say that the Naftali Bennetts and Mort Kleins of the world may not have everything in Trump that they bargained for.