Blog: Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem: the good, the bad and the unpredictable

The Embassy of the United States of American in Tel Aviv, Israel. June 14, 2016. Photo by Flash90

By Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) – President-elect Donald Trump said during his campaign he wants to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. His nominee for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has said he hopes he will work from an embassy in the city.

Trump’s transition team has affirmed the intention to move the embassy, albeit without a timeline. And now, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, in a forceful speech at Tuesday night’s Hanukkah party at the embassy here, encouraged Trump to make good on the pledge, saying it was long past due.

Dermer last night enumerated some of the arguments for the move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and they are also outlined here in a Wall Street Journal editorial.

Here’s what the “for” argument looks like:

* The Jewish connection to Jerusalem is ancient.

* No other country is denied representation in its capital.

* Done correctly (i.e., with lots of pre-move assuaging of nerves in Arab and Muslim lands allied with the West, and with a site in western Jerusalem), it should go smoothly, especially because relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors are closer than ever due to shared interests in crushing the Islamic State and stopping Iran.

Eli Lake at Bloomberg gets at some of the “against” arguments, particularly regarding tentatively improving relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Here’s a summary of the “against” case:

* The Palestinians have a claim to the city and moving the embassy before a final-status agreement preempts their claim.

* The city is a tinderbox and any disturbance of its status quo will lead to violence.

* Israel’s allies in the Arab and Muslim world (both unofficial and official) may reluctantly go along, but its enemies – particularly Iran, which annually commemorates the “loss” of Jerusalem, and the Islamic State — will seize the opportunity and stoke violence.

* And those Arab allies? Even the dictators have to answer to their constituencies, who would likely be violently against. This could endanger whatever nascent comprehensive peace is in the works.

Beyond the “good” and the “bad,” there is also the unpredictable. Here are some things we can’t know about the move until it actually happens:

Going native

In the early 1980s, Prime Minister Menachem Begin used incentives to get journalists to move from Tel Aviv to the press center in Jerusalem, Beit Agron, because he wanted them to recognize the city as Israel’s capital.

Plenty of agencies bit, with an unexpected result: Whereas the journalists occasionally visited with Palestinians while based in Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem they got to know Palestinian leaders well and media understanding of the Palestinian story deepened — and not necessarily to Israel’s benefit.

The Americans maintain a consulate in eastern Jerusalem, and Israeli officials – and pro-Israel groups – complain that its staff has “gone native,” reflecting the interests of the Arab population. The Tel Aviv staff, by contrast, is ensconced in the most western corner of Israel and has a positive outlook on Israel and the diversions it has to offer. What happens to that attitude once they move 40 miles up the hill to Jerusalem.

Who drops by? And what about the consulate?

The Israeli government frowns on diplomats taking meetings with Palestinian officials in Jerusalem – it signals recognition of Palestinian claims to the city. Does that policy stick if the embassy moves there? Would Palestinian officials agree to enter its precincts? If they did, would Israel welcome the visits as an acknowledgement of Israeli sovereignty or see them as a threat to that sovereignty?

And what happens to the consulate in eastern Jerusalem that deals with Arab issues? Its continued presence would undercut Israeli claims to the entire city. Does Israel’s government agitate for its removal? To where?

Jerusalem is protests central

City residents with grievances  — the poor, the haredim, the Arabs, the nearby settlers and their supporters — can organize a demonstration on a moment’s notice. The American embassy would be a fat, juicy locus for those protests, even if the causes they represent have little to do with the United States. And what will that look like on TV broadcasts?

Dig this

Try building anything new in Jerusalem and you’re bound to hit some pottery shards, possibly even bones. Depending on the significance of the find, a construction site could attract a stop order from the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Let’s meet for lunch?

Dining in Jerusalem means making a political choice. Kosher? Glatt kosher? Treif? Deciding on where you can get the best hummus in the city is a political statement. Abu Shukri by the Damascus Gate? Pinati on the Midrehov? What are you trying to say, ambassador?

The residence and the schools

The American ambassador currently enjoys spacious digs in Herzliya, a place amenable to July 4 festivities and other bashes, and near some of the best schools in the country. Big spaces are hard to come by in Jerusalem. Harder still if Americans decide – as a means of assuaging Arab anger – to stick to the city’s west in locating both an embassy and a residence.

And the schools! For ambassadors with school-age kids, what a hornet’s nest. Go for the “international” choices in Jerusalem and risk accusations you’re exposing the kids to anti-Israel views. Go for Israel’s system and take your pick of whom to offend — the religious, the haredim, the national religious.


The American embassy currently employs 800 staff, including 250 Americans, in Tel Aviv — a city where you can dress however you like. In Jerusalem, dress is (once again) a political statement. Do women on staff have to cover up? How does that play among the diplomatic corps?

The unpredictable

In my years living in Jerusalem in the 1980s — and again in the 1990s and 2000s — international incidents were sparked or almost sparked by religious Jews in the Old City dumping laundry water on Christian Boy Scouts; a nurse’s aide at the Notre Dame hospital across from the Old City taking a stroll in the nude on its roof; Ariel Sharon taking a stroll on the Temple Mount.

It’s a city where anything can happen — and often does. There’s a name for the way it makes people crazy: The Jerusalem Syndrome.

One more thing: The city is susceptible to earthquakes. Considering everything else, that’s almost an afterthought.

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