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June 1, 2017

Trump, Jerusalem and the Status Quo

Despite campaign promises, the president won’t (yet) move the U.S. embassy in Israel. What’s the calculation?

Just days after his first trip to Israel, President Donald Trump signed a waiver delaying moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He promised on the campaign trail to move the embassy. The Washington Examiner explains the history: “Trump’s waiver suspends the move under the Jerusalem Embassy Act for six months. The law, passed in 1995, required the embassy to be moved to Jerusalem by the end of the 20th century, or else the State Department’s building budget would be cut in half. However, the law allowed the president to sign six-month waivers if it did not serve the national interest to move the embassy. Every president since the bill became law — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Trump — all signed waivers.”

Trump spokesman Sean Spicer explained, “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. But, as he has repeatedly stated his intention to move the embassy, the question is not if that move happens, but only when.”

There’s still time for him to fulfill his promise, of course, which would be the desired outcome — if far easier made a campaign promise than done. Another six months isn’t going to make or break our relationship with Israel; apparently neither will 22 years of waivers with the same statement attached every time. And perhaps Trump communicated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their visit together, and the two men agreed to the delay. Surely it wasn’t for nothing that Netanyahu said, “We appreciate the reassertion of American leadership in the Middle East. For the first time in my lifetime, I see a real hope for peace.”

At the same time, a lasting peace deal with the Palestinians remains a fantasy of American presidents and diplomats. Many Palestinians (and other Middle Eastern Muslims) will consider “peace” only when Israel is wiped off the map, so moving the U.S. embassy almost couldn’t make things worse. For his part, Netanyahu issued a statement saying, “Maintaining embassies outside the capital drives peace further away by helping keep alive the Palestinian fantasy that the Jewish people and the Jewish state have no connection to Jerusalem.”

We believe Trump’s foreign trip in particular marked a distinct break from the previous administration, and yet here he is signing on to the same old policy. Appeasing terrorists and terrorist supporters isn’t going to bring peace. If Trump wants to drain the Middle Eastern swamp, as it were, a great way to change Palestinian expectations would be the ultimate diplomatic symbol of moving the U.S. embassy and affirming Israel’s right to exist with the capital of its choice.

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