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The U.S. Embassy Prepares to Move to Jerusalem

Filed under: Israel, Jerusalem, Palestinians, U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

The U.S. Embassy Prepares to Move to Jerusalem
New road signs printed for the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem (Jewish News Syndicate)

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 18, No. 8

New road signs printed for the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem
New road signs printed for the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem
(Jewish News Syndicate)
  • The United States has hammered another nail into the “coffin” of the 1947 UN Partition Resolution that called for the internationalization of Jerusalem.
  • The Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, the Philippines, Guatemala, Honduras, and various other countries are considering to follow in the footsteps of the United States.
  • The Christian evangelical sector of American voters was what finally clinched Trump’s resolve to transfer the embassy from Tel Aviv and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
  • The “price” Israel will pay appears to be continued restraint in construction and an occasional building freeze in Jerusalem.
  • The embassy will open in west Jerusalem, with an “overflow” to the 1967 seam-line, which used to be no-mans The United States is effectively saying that there will be no future negotiations over west Jerusalem, but this is not the case with regard to the east.
  • Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan will not be rushing to demonstrate against this move. The Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and Turkey, however, will attempt to provoke protests.
  • The most likely potential for conflagration is on the Temple Mount. Israeli security forces will attempt to prevent any outbreaks of violence.

Donald Trump’s birthday gift to the State of Israel on its 70th Independence Day – the transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem – is another nail in the coffin in which Trump’s America placed UN Partition Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947, which called for the internationalization of Jerusalem. This metaphorical coffin is the consequence of U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 6, 2017. Now, it would seem, it is being laid to rest in its grave. This is the political significance of the U.S. recognition of Israel of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the transfer of its embassy to the city.

At the same time, to put matters into proportion, it is worthwhile stating: Contrary to the lamentations and threats of war on the Palestinian side, but also in contrast to the fanfare and sense of victory on the Israeli side, this is neither cause for another Nakba for the Palestinians nor a second November 29, 1947 celebration for Israel. The embassy transfer is primarily a snapshot of the situation and de jure recognition of what already exists de facto: Jerusalem, and definitely its western part, where the United States is now putting its embassy, is the capital of Israel. The United States, as opposed to most other countries in the world, recognizes this reality and has given it recognition and its seal of approval. Does this mean that the concept of the internationalization of Jerusalem will never be tossed back into the state arena in the future? No. Does it mean that a specific internationalization formula regarding the holy sites and the Old City will never be raised again at some time in the future? Even the answer to this question is negative. Enough players, aside from the United States, in the international arena are still toying with this idea. At the same time, the fact that a power like the United States has effectively erased the internationalization option with regard to the entire area of Jerusalem is very significant.

What does this American move contain, and what does it lack? What does it change, and what does it not change? And what are its ramifications?

Another Nail in the Coffin of Internationalization

First and foremost, the current U.S. president Donald Trump has removed the internationalization formula, which the United States has not officially withdrawn from since November 29, 1947. On that day, the UN General Assembly accepted Resolution 181 for the partition of the Land of Israel between the Jews and the Arabs. In the partition resolution, it is written among other things that, “the city of Jerusalem will be established as a separate body under a special international government and will be governed by the United Nations.”

The city of Bethlehem is also included within the boundaries of Jerusalem determined by the United Nations at that time. The internationalization of the city was expected to last for ten years, but it never happened. As a result of the War of Independence and the division of Jerusalem between Israel and Jordan, it became impracticable.

Until the Trump “recognition speech,” the United Nations had avoided withdrawing from the internationalization resolution officially, even though the main emphasis of its policy was to assert time after time that the final status of Jerusalem would be determined through negotiations between both sides. Now that Trump has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and is transferring the U.S. embassy there, internationalization, at least from the point of view of the current U.S. administration, has become an irrelevant piece of history.

Here is another interesting historical insight about the internationalization resolution of 1947: Contrary to its perception, the internationalization resolution did not reduce the city limits of Jerusalem, but actually extended them. The appendix to Resolution 181 defined the city limits of internationalized Jerusalem as extending from Abu Dis and al-Azariya in the east to Ein Karem and Motza in the west, and from Shuafat in the north to Bethlehem and Beit Jala in the south.

The international map drew such broad boundaries for Jerusalem in an attempt to satisfy the interests of both the Christians and the Arabs. The Christians did not only want control of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem but also of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Arabs feared the Jewish majority within the current limited municipal boundaries, and they, therefore, requested to extend them to introduce an Arab majority that would even affect the results of a referendum that was under discussion as a possibility at the time.

Who Will Follow the United States?

An additional ramification of the American step relates to the possibility that other countries will follow in the footsteps of the United States. The Israeli Foreign Ministry reports that more than ten countries have made contact with regard to transferring their embassies to Jerusalem. This matter has been mentioned openly by three people: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, and Knesset Chairman Yuli Edelstein. All three of them have reported in recent months that other countries have made approaches, expressing a desire to transfer their embassies to Jerusalem. They expect that following the actions of the United States, other countries will do the same. So far, here are the countries that are considering transferring their embassies to Jerusalem:

The Czech Republic: The day after Trump’s speech giving recognition to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Czech Republic also recognized Jerusalem as our capital. However, it clarified that this recognition was only with regard to western Jerusalem, and if an agreement were reached to establish a Palestinian state, the eastern part of the city would have to become its capital. The Czech Republic also abstained from a vote at the UN General Assembly on December 21, 2018, on a resolution that “nullified” President Trump’s announcement about Jerusalem. Czech President Milos Zeman recently declared at a reception in honor of the 70th Independence Day of the State of Israel that the transfer of the Czech embassy would take place in three stages: Firstly, an honorary consulate would open, and then the Czech investment center and other departments currently housed in the embassy in Tel Aviv would be moved to Jerusalem. The embassy would only officially open in Jerusalem at the final stage. However, Zeman did not give this process a timetable.

Romania: The Romanian government accepted a theoretical resolution to begin the process of moving its embassy to Jerusalem. However, it has not mentioned a timetable or the stages of putting this resolution into action. In Romania, there are sharp differences of opinion about taking this step. Prime Minister Viorica Dancila and the chairman of the Romanian Parliament Liviu Dragnea support the transfer of the Romanian embassy to Jerusalem. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, however, is opposed to the process. Iohannis attacked the expected move very strongly, accusing the prime minister of “making a deal with the Jews,” and claimed that this action contravenes the position of the European Union and international law. “Who knows what other secret deals Dancila has been making with the Jews?” the Romanian president asked in a statement with anti-Semitic overtones that was widely condemned by Jewish organizations in Europe. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely has been working on this matter directly with the Romanian foreign minister and other figures in Romania to push through the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem. On the other hand, the Palestinians have also been working hard on this issue in Romania, and they are trying very hard to prevent the embassy transfer.

The Philippines: President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has informed Israel that he is interested in transferring the Philippines embassy to the capital city.

Guatemala: President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala announced several months ago that his country intended to follow in the wake of the United States and transfer its embassy to Jerusalem. At the most recent AIPAC conference, Morales stated that his country would be the second, after the United States, to transfer its embassy to Jerusalem, two days later on May 16. Guatemala’s embassy was in Jerusalem until 1980 when, following the Jerusalem Law, it was one of 13 countries that moved their embassies out of the capital.

Guatemala’s flag was raised at its new embassy location in Jerusalem
Guatemala’s flag was raised at its new embassy location in Jerusalem on Tuesday, May 1, 2018 (Capture/YouTube)

Honduras: Israel has many military and commercial connections with this Central American country, and it is expected to be on the list. Just before Yom Ha’atzmaut in 2018, President Juan Orlando Hernandez canceled his participation in a torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl, but to date, it is assumed that transferring the Honduran embassy to Jerusalem is still on the president’s agenda.

Paraguay: The Paraguayan embassy is currently in Mevasseret Tziyon, a suburb of Jerusalem, but it is expected that it will also move to Jerusalem. President Horacio Cartes of Paraguay has announced that before he steps down from his position in June, he will transfer the embassy to Jerusalem.

Slovakia: The chairman of the Slovakian Parliament told the chairman of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein that he supports the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the transfer of the Slovakian embassy to Jerusalem. However, the Slovakian Foreign Minister announced, after this was reported, that the government of Slovakia has no intention of doing so and its position is that the city should serve as the capital of two states – Israel and Palestine.

The Evangelical Christian Sector

Pressure applied by Christian evangelical organizations played a significant, if not decisive, role in U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel and to transfer the U.S. embassy to the city. A key personality in this episode is Vice President Mike Pence, who has described himself more than once as a “Christian, Conservative, and Republican – in that order.” Pence is affiliated with the evangelical church. The closeness that Pence feels toward Israel and his decisive influence were seen during a speech that he gave before the Knesset in January 2018. Pence said the following:

“The songs and stories of the people of Israel were their anthems, and they faithfully taught them to their children, and do to this day.  And our founders, as others have said, turned to the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible for direction, guidance, and inspiration. …. And down through the generations, the American people became fierce advocates of the Jewish people’s aspiration to return to the land of your forefathers to claim your own new birth of freedom in your beloved homeland. … Through a 2,000-year exile, the longest of any people, anywhere, through conquests and expulsions, inquisitions and pogroms, the Jewish people held on to this promise. …your people, just three years after walking beneath the shadow of death, rose up from the ashes to resurrect yourselves, to reclaim a Jewish future, and to rebuild the Jewish state.”1

Pence’s election as vice president expresses the significant weight of the Christian evangelical sector of the U.S. voters that gave Trump his presidency. The influence of this sector, its organizations, and leaders have been decisive in the transfer of the embassy and the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Among the organizations that exerted heavy pressure on the White House to keep Trump’s election promise were the Christian group headed by Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, and also American Christian Leaders for Israel, a coalition of more than 60 evangelical and pro-Israel supporters in the United States.

The president of the International Christian Embassy Dr. Jurgen Buhler said several weeks ago that, “evangelical Christians in the United States support President Trump en masse because of his promise to implement the law and honor Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”2

As a counterweight to the evangelical organizations, reverse pressure was applied by the State Department and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who continually warned Trump about the expected ramifications of taking this step, from cutting ties with the Palestinians to revenge attacks against the United States around the world.

Like Ben-Gurion?

In Israel, some have compared Trump’s stand before the State Department in this regard to David Ben-Gurion’s stand in December 1949 against the concerns of Israel’s first Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, among others. Ben-Gurion insisted on declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and transferring the main government offices and institutions to the city. In a telegram that he sent to Sharett on December 4, 1949, Ben-Gurion wrote briefly but determinedly: “Assemble the government tomorrow morning. I will present a statement before the Knesset that the State of Israel will not be satisfied in any way with a foreign government in Jewish Jerusalem and its severance from the country. If we are presented with a choice of either leaving Jerusalem or the United Nations, we would prefer to leave the United Nations.”

At the end of that week, the UN General Assembly accepted the resolution to internationalize Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion’s biographer Michael Bar Zohar writes in his book that when his secretary brought him the tidings of the internationalization resolution and a telegram that, “Our position with regard to Jerusalem only has the chance of receiving a single vote – that of the Israeli delegation,” Ben-Gurion was holding a copy of the Bible that he had been studying at that moment, and he said, “This is the deciding vote!” Four days later, Ben-Gurion announced that Jerusalem would continue to be the capital of Israel, and the transfer of government offices from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem began. The international storm that broke out and the flood of condemnations against Israel for taking this step did not sway him.

Trump is not Ben-Gurion. We are in a different era altogether. The State of Israel is already 70 years old. Then, Ben-Gurion was leading a country that was very much in its infancy. Today, we are talking about the president of the superpower, the United States. In spite of everything, there is one common factor. Trump, like Ben-Gurion in his time, disregarded the opinions of the experts and the warnings of “professional bodies.” In particular, he is ignoring the positions of most of the countries of the world. He is pursuing the issue of Jerusalem right through to the end.

A Question of Price

Aside from the component of religious ideology that motivated Trump, and his innate friendship toward Israel, the question of what price Israel is required or will be required to pay for U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as its capital and transferring the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem has been raised on several occasions. The key to the answer to this question lies within one of the sentences in Pence’s friendship speech before the Knesset. Pence repeated and clarified (as Trump himself has done at other opportunities) that the final borders of Jerusalem will be determined through negotiations between both sides. Within this statement lies the continuation of significant U.S. involvement in everything regarding construction and building plans in Jerusalem and the greater Jerusalem area beyond what is called “the Green Line.”

The Trump administration is opposed to construction in two specific locations that the Palestinians and Israelis consider to be particularly strategic: the E1 neighborhood between Maaleh Adumim and Jerusalem, and Givat Hamatos, which is in southern Jerusalem. The Israelis and the Palestinians have been embroiled in a conflict over E1 for many years regarding urban growth in this area. The Israelis want to continue building between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim and the Dead Sea along the south-eastern strip. The Palestinians want to build from north to south, creating better continuity between Ramallah and Bethlehem, and southward toward Hebron. Even during Trump’s presidency, the Americans have called upon both sides not to build anything and freeze the situation as it is.

With regard to Givat Hamatos, from Israel’s point of view, building on Givat Hamatos is one of the keys to the prevention of the division of Jerusalem from the south and the creation of a Palestinian wedge that would break up the planned continuity between the neighborhoods of Gilo and Har Homa on the southern edge of Jerusalem. From the Palestinian point of view, freezing construction in Givat Hamatos is crucial to preserving the option of urban and eventually state continuity between Bethlehem and Beit Safafa. According to the Palestinian view, this kind of continuity would become part of the fabric of Palestinian urban life, eventually becoming part of the eastern Jerusalem area, “capital of the future Palestinian state.”

Location of Givat Hamatos in southern Jerusalem
Satellite photo of the empty area at Givat Hamatos (Google Earth)

These are two examples of U.S. involvement in construction in Jerusalem. However, the United States receives reports from Israel about almost every building project beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem, and it expresses its opinion.

In general, Israel is building many more apartments in the western part of the city today, and significantly fewer in the east, in areas to the north, south, and east of the old Green Line. From this point of view, the situation that existed in the Obama era has changed, but only modestly.

An Embassy on the Seam

The U.S. embassy will be transferred to 14 Flusser Street in Arnona, west Jerusalem, on May 14, 2018. Over the past few weeks, final work on preparing the area has been done. These include paving approach roads and pathways, installing lighting, and other security measures. This is a temporary location. It has not yet been determined where the embassy will be located on a permanent basis. Workers from the consular department that is currently at this address have already received notification that from halfway through May, their status will change to embassy employees. Passports and visas will continue to be provided there to both Israelis and Palestinians.

U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman will continue to live in Herzliya at this point. He will work at both his new office in Jerusalem and the old embassy in Tel Aviv. Effectively, the office in Jerusalem will be a branch of the embassy in Tel Aviv. In a few months, expansion of the embassy in Jerusalem will be designed, and additional workers from Tel Aviv are expected to operate it. The permanent location of the embassy building in Jerusalem will only be decided at the final stage, and all of the embassy employees in Tel Aviv will be expected to transfer to Jerusalem. An additional branch of the U.S. consulate presently operates on Agron Street in Jerusalem, and this manages all contacts with the Palestinian Authority. This branch will not change its practices and will continue to be responsible for connections with the Palestinian Authority.

The embassy will be located in the western half of the city, but part of the building will overflow into what was once a no-mans land between Israel and Jordan in an open area established between both countries from 1948 to 1967. The fact that the embassy will be in western Jerusalem and not in the east has dual significance: From the point of view of the United States, western Jerusalem is an area that is not up for negotiation. In contrast, eastern Jerusalem is still a subject for negotiations and disputed territory. However, unlike previously, Trump’s America has not given an opinion in this regard. At least at this stage, it does not treat eastern Jerusalem as “the capital of a future Palestinian state.”

The Isolation of the Palestinians

Trump and his government are engaged in a process of transferring the embassy and accepting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while the Arab world is divided. The (comparative) silence of Egypt and the Saudis on this process, which Jordan has also joined, have made it easier for Trump to go through with it. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan will also benefit from generous future economic and military aid from the Trump government. They are part of the coalition that Trump and Netanyahu are building against Iran and the organizations and countries that are helping it, including Hizbullah, Hamas, Syria, and Turkey. The Saudis and Egyptians have expressed formal opposition to Trump’s actions, but they have been careful not to push the boundaries on this issue. Jordan, which at first appeared to join in with Turkey, has taken a step or two back. On this matter, King Abdullah first supported Mahmoud Abbas and Erdogan, but after discussions with the United States, he “calmed down.” It appears that behind the “calm,” there is the understanding that the United States will help Jordan out of its current economic crisis. At the same time, Jordan is firmly opposed to the “deal of the century.” My colleague Yoni Ben Menachem stated on this site that Jordan is troubled by two issues:

  1. A challenge to its status as guardian of the holy sites in Jerusalem, as laid down in the peace agreement that it signed with Israel in 1994;
  2. The status of the refugees in Jordan. Around 60 percent of the residents of the Hashemite Kingdom are refugees. Jordan is worried that the United States might demand, as part of the “deal of the century” agreement, that it absorbs these refugees and grants them equal rights to the rest of its residents.

As for Mahmoud Abbas, whose state of health is precarious, he is seeking to sign his name in the history books as the person who struggled for Jerusalem right up until the last moment and neither “gave in” nor compromised over it. The Palestinian Authority, which still maintains a security liaison with Israel, is working in cooperation with Turkey, which has become an extreme member of the “refusal front” with regard to U.S. actions relating to Jerusalem. Turkey recently intensified tourism to the al-Aqsa compound. It is sending thousands of Turkish citizens to show their presence at the Islamic holy sites. Turkey has also transferred (according to the last report from the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center) an archive of land registrations from the Ottoman era to help the Palestinian Authority and the Wakf acquire more control of lands in Jerusalem as part of their legal battles against Israel and the Jews.

How Will the Region React?

The scenarios presented by Israel’s defense elements to the political echelon immediately prior to the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital were very grave. However, only some of them came to pass, both because the wider Palestinian public did not take to the streets after the recognition announcement and because the IDF and other security agencies successfully foiled attempted terror attacks.

At this time, before the embassy transfer, the possible scenarios are worrisome. Extremists are talking about more mass protests and “connected” terror attacks. This is hardly surprising. The role of the security forces is to prepare the political echelon for the worst scenarios of all, and they are indeed doing that.

These forecasts have even provided us with a series of key dates:

  • Sunday, May 13, 2018, (or 28 Iyar according to the Hebrew calendar), is Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day.
  • On Monday, May 14, 2018, the transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is expected to take place.
  • Tuesday, May 15, 2018, is Nakba Day when the Palestinians commemorate the “disaster of the establishment of the State of Israel” in various ways.
  • On Wednesday, May 16, 2018, the Guatemalan embassy is expected to be transferred to Jerusalem.
  • Two days later, on Friday, May 18, it will be the first Friday of the month of Ramadan, and the Palestinians in Gaza intend to step up the return marches at the border fence.

The leader of the Hamas political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, recently promised that Hamas would “ruin and destroy the celebrations of the Israelis over the transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Our resistance will destroy two celebrations for the occupation: the celebration of the occupation of Palestine and the celebration of the transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.” He also promised that the “return marches” would spread to the West Bank and the Palestinian diaspora, thereby “sabotaging Trump’s deals.”

Despite Haniyeh’s statements, for the Palestinian Authority at least, there is no interest right now in creating a new wave of terror. Mahmoud Abbas’ government (like his state of health) is hanging by a thread. The wider Palestinian public has not rallied in general to a struggle with Israel over the embassy transfer, in spite of the incidents at the border fence with Gaza. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan prefer to focus on efforts to thwart Iran right now rather than fanning the flames in Israel.

Hamas has an opposite interest. Even if Gaza is not yet ready for another round of warfare with Israel, Hamas is still working constantly to create significant resistance and violent terror attacks in Judea and Samaria. It is doing this primarily with the help of former prisoners released under the Shalit prisoner exchange deal, who have taken over key positions in the leadership in Gaza. Even within Judea and Samaria, there are significant numbers of terrorists released under the Shalit Deal, and Hamas is trying to galvanize them into action.

Despite everything, one location that could ignite the region extensively, especially over Ramadan, leading to terror attacks and large demonstrations, is the Temple Mount. On similar, sensitive occasions, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, the northern chapter of the Islamic movement in Israel, and Turkey have repeated the canard, “Al-Aqsa is in danger,” managing to provoke agitation, terror attacks, and wide-scale protests. The security forces are aware of this potential, and they are working to make sure that none of it happens. But as we know, not everything is dependent upon them.

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2 Ariel Kahana, Makor Rishon,  in late 2017.