It appears there is some confusion in the new administration in Washington that came to power last week. After repeated promises Trump made about moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, news leaks in the Israeli press indicate that this decision has been put on hold for a while. US-Israeli officials had already started discussing the move and a US delegation headed off to the site designated for the embassy compound in occupied East Jerusalem, one of the Arab territories seized and occupied by Israel in the 1967 War.
The pledge to move the US embassy to Jerusalem is not new. It has been reiterated regularly by US presidential candidates from both parties who would dutifully march over to AIPAC’s offices in Washington to perform the rites of homage that include this pledge. Then, after taking the oath of office, the winner would sign an existing law calling for the move to be deferred for six months and he would continue to sign that law at the stipulated intervals until vacating the White House. Reagan, Bush Sr, Clinton, Bush Jr and Obama all did this. The ritual was repeated in the last US elections. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sallied over to the powerful pro-Israel lobby and recited the pledge to move the embassy, which the folks at AIPAC have come to realise is for campaign purposes in order to win the votes of Jewish Americans. But now that Trump is in office, will he — in spite of the reported delay — actually go ahead and move the embassy?
One thing is for sure: Trump is determined to be different from his predecessors. He would therefore be driven by impulse to sign the go-ahead. However, he faces certain constraints, one being major US agencies and institutions, the other being the Arab states that Trump regards as US friends or allies, such as Egypt.
To be sure, such institutions as the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA have a crucial role to play in this matter. They will try to persuade Trump that moving the embassy would damage the US’ image and American interests in the Middle East. They will also point out that for reasons pertaining security, the fight against radical fundamentalist groups and the war against terrorism the decision to move the embassy is not a wise one and should continue to be deferred.
To move the embassy to East Jerusalem, a territory occupied by force, would constitute a flagrant violation of international law and UN resolutions. This might not mean much to the new US president but it does mean something to the standing institutions immediately responsible for the promotion, safety and wellbeing of US interests at home and abroad which, in this region, depend on maintaining good relations with a number of moderate Arab states, foremost among which is Egypt. Officials in those institutions will undoubtedly try to explain to Trump that moving the embassy will greatly hamper Egypt’s ability to work effectively with his administration. They will also explain that the move would be tantamount to a magic wand that would breathe new life and vigour into extremist groups and terrorist organisations that exploit national causes and trade in people’s suffering in order to amass support. By moving the embassy to occupied East Jerusalem Trump would effectively trigger terrorist attacks against American interests and Western interests in general, and against Arab countries trying to cooperate with the US, because terrorist groups carrying out those attacks would know that they could garner quite a bit of support among large swathes of Arab and Muslim public opinion by casting themselves as defenders of the Holy Places.
I imagine that officials from the State Department, Pentagon and CIA are already working to convince the new US president to be prudent and to sign the law to defer moving the embassy for six months. This would present an opportunity for Arab capitals that have good standing with Trump to press home the dangers inherent in a decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.