Foreign Affairs

Trump, Pence, and the Jerusalem Question

According to the New York Times, Vice President Mike Pence recently announced to the Israeli Parliament that the United States move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by 2019. This statement, met with protest by Arab lawmakers holding signs reading “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine,” contradicts decades of U.S. and international policy regarding the status of the holy city. This move, compounded by President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel last month, could have potentially dire consequences for both the United States’ foreign status and peace in the Middle East.

Before this announcement, the U.S. maintained that the status of Jerusalem could only be determined by negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Palestine claims Jerusalem as their capital, or asks for the city to be divided and authority over East Jerusalem be given to them. Israel seeks full control of the city.

Though he has threatened to close an office of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Washington and cut American funding to a United Nations agency that provides aid to Palestinian refugees, President Trump insists that the firm stance he has taken in favor of Israel should not discourage peace talks between the two parties. Trump claims to be working on the “deal of the century” to bring a resolution, though it is still unclear what said deal entails.

The Jerusalem Embassy Act passed by Congress in 1995 calls for the U.S. embassy to be moved from Tel Aviv, the second most populous city in Israel, to Jerusalem. Previous administrations have stalled this move by renewing an inbuilt waiver every six months, citing security and peace concerns. Trump, however, let this waiver expire and thereby fulfilled one of his campaign pledges to finally relocate the embassy and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Some wonder, though, if Trump will actually be able to deliver. As of December 2017, the United States still has yet to act upon plans from 2008 to move its British embassy from north to south London. This precedent raises the question about the plausibility of the embassy being relocated if Trump is not reelected in 2020 and the pace demonstrated in London is continued.

Pence’s announcement was met with relief and excitement by Israeli officials. Says Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev, “Truth must be said and the truth is that Israel and Jerusalem belong to the Jewish people.” The Vice President made the United States’ new position on the Israel-Palestine conflict clear when he asserted at the Knesset in Jerusalem that “(the United States stands) with Israel because we believe in right over wrong, in good over evil, and in liberty over tyranny… (the) United States has chosen fact over fiction, and fact is the only true foundation for a just and lasting peace.”

Critics of the plan were swift and many, and eager to point out the flaws in the United States’ new position. In a statement on the official Twitter page of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Negotiations Affairs Department, Dr. Saeb Erekat, Palestine’s chief negotiator, lambasted the decision. “His message to the rest of the world is clear,” Erekat writes, “violate international law & resolutions and the US will reward you.” Besides the ethical questions surrounding the decision, others have raised issues with how it may compromise the United States’ status and credibility as a viable mediator between the two parties after siding with Israel.

Only time will tell whether or not Trump’s plan will be executed by 2019 — or ever — and exactly how it will affect the country’s foreign policy. However, it is likely that the U.S. will lose a large amount of its status as a moderator, therefore stalling peace talks without the presence of the nation as a neutral party. The threat of violence in Israel and even against the U.S. is also a very real possibility. Trump nonetheless remains confident that “this course of action (is) in the best interests of the United States of America and the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This is a long-overdue step to advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agreement.”

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