President Trump’s campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem—coupled with his reiterating this promise as a sitting president—means the administration could be forced into a will-he-or-won’t-he pattern every six months, instead of being able to quietly punt like his predecessors.
On Thursday, the White House announced that Trump had signed the waiver which must be signed every six months in order to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv. But in its statement, the White House re-emphasized Trump’s promise to move it.
“While President Donald J. Trump signed the waiver under the Jerusalem Embassy Act and delayed moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, no one should consider this step to be in any way a retreat from the President's strong support for Israel and for the United States-Israel alliance,” the statement read. “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.”
The 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, which first called for the embassy to be moved, has not been implemented by the last three presidents, all of whom have signed a waiver every six months preventing the transfer. The U.S. does not currently recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, though Israel itself regards the city as such. Moving the embassy would be tantamount to the U.S. recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which would have immediate reverberations in the region because Palestinians regard Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, and it could provoke anger from Israel's neighbors in the region.
Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is a perennial campaign promise for Republican candidates. But the Trump White House statement’s repetition of that promise is significant, said former State Department Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller.
“It is significant even though he waived that he made clear in a formal statement that as president he now has committed himself to move the embassy,” Miller said. “The smarter option would have been to exercise the waiver and simply say the matter remains under discussion.”
Past administrations were able to quietly kick the can down the road on this issue. Barack Obama never promised to move the embassy during the campaign, though both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did. But Trump’s continued public commitment to moving the embassy means this may become a live issue every six months, something that could become more onerous if the administration does succeed in relaunching peace talks.
“It becomes problematic because these negotiations are likely to drag on interminably, assuming they even get started,” Miller said.
Trump’s delaying the decision is typical of past presidents, though as former Clinton and Obama administration diplomat and Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross pointed out, “It’s not so much like there’s this long litany of those who promised it and didn’t do it.”
“Frankly it would have surprised me if he didn’t say in signing the waiver that he still hoped to do it,” Ross said.
Trump’s reiterating his promise to move the embassy also functions as a pressure tactic, said Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute.
“By signing the waiver he avoids creating a problem,” Ibish said. “But by saying he still intends to move the embassy, he protects himself, protects Netanyahu, and is still holding out the threat to the Arabs and the Palestinians that look, there’s still something on the other side, so cooperate with me.”
Trump’s promise to move the embassy, along with his other campaign pledges, are written down on a whiteboard in chief strategist Steve Bannon’s office. But all signs had pointed to Trump not moving the embassy now, and U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman had been warning Israeli officials to lower their expectations as part of “ongoing high level discussions with the Israelis” on the issue, a senior White House official said.
There have been internal divisions in the administration over moving the embassy. Even as late as yesterday morning, according to a senior official with a pro-Israel organization who is in touch with the White House and who spoke on condition of anonymity, there was debate over whether to sign the waiver or whether to let the waiver expire (without moving the embassy immediately).
“It was decided that letting the waiver expire but not moving was a little too cute,” this source said.
“Obviously people who have very strong views on this issue, Nikki Haley, David Friedman, they haven’t been shy and the president listens to them,” said the senior White House official, adding that there was “discussion up until the end” of whether this was the right moment.
Another senior White House official said they were not aware of a last-minute debate on this issue.
Trump returned this past weekend from his first trip abroad, which included a stop in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories where he met with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Trump has pledged to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, talking about how he wants the “ultimate deal.”
Even before the trip, Trump was facing pressure to keep the status quo; according to a source briefed on the conversation, Jordan’s King Abdullah leaned on Trump not to move the embassy when he came to Washington in February, saying such a move could destabilize Jordan. One of the senior White House officials said that “The King did offer his thoughts on the waiver when he visited Washington.” Another official added that “The Jordanians have been pretty clear on their position on this.”
Trump’s decision to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv for now will annoy his supporters on the pro-Israel right, who have been pushing for this, but the decision doesn’t come as a surprise.
“Trump is not the first friend of Israel in the White House to sign the waiver,” said Shalom Lipner, a Brookings scholar who served from 1990-2016 in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. “Inevitably, other considerations intrude. Israelis are disappointed, but largely unsurprised. But there is a constituency, comprised mostly of Trump supporters, who genuinely believed that he would make good on his promise to move the embassy in his first few months; for them, this is a rude awakening.
The Israeli Prime Minister’s office released a statement on Thursday saying that Israel is “disappointed” but that it appreciates Trump’s “friendship to Israel and his commitment to moving the embassy in the future.”