Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is a bad idea for everyone — except Israeli hard-liners and their American friends

Moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is supposed to show American resolve. It will only sow chaos

Published January 29, 2017 12:00PM (EST)

The US Embassy building in Tel Aviv.   (Getty/Jack Guez)
The US Embassy building in Tel Aviv. (Getty/Jack Guez)

When the two most influential leaders in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and his counterpart from the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed, get together to discuss how Washington can demonstrate its renewed commitment to regional allies, it is a safe bet that moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is not on their list.

Yet some supporters of the embassy move have made the opposite argument. They argue that after eight years during which Barack Obama is said to have weakened American commitment to its traditional Middle Eastern partners — Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab Gulf states — the Trump administration can quickly and decisively demonstrate its leadership and steadfast support to its allies by moving the American embassy. It is these kinds of ideas that have ideological appeal but ignore politics, history and reality. They are bound to get the United States (and Israel) in trouble in the Middle East yet again.

In general, the discourse about the Middle East in Washington is overly optimistic about the ability of the United States to shape events and control other actors. Almost 14 years ago, George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq was supposed to be a “cakewalk” after which Iraqis would welcome the United States as its liberator. It did not work out that way, but that has not staunched the flow of oddly illogical justifications for self-defeating policies. Seizing Iraqi oil, as President Trump declared recently, and moving the American embassy from 71 HaYarkon Street in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, fit neatly into this category.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a proving ground for the kind of muddled thinking around the proposed embassy move. During the second intifada, which began in September 2000, either because (depending on where you stand) then-leader of the Likud Party Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount (also known as the Haram al-Sharif) or then-president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Yasser Arafat planned it all along, Americans and Israelis offered up a variety of logically specious claims.

For example, as the dirty little war between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and various violent factions of Palestinian terrorist groups spilled more and more blood, Israelis and Americans demanded that Arafat “must do more” to quell the violence. The longtime Palestinian leader was hopeless, hapless and repugnant. His apologists tend to forget that the terrorist organization connected to his own Fatah faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization was responsible for some of the worst violence of the uprising. Still, it was hard for Arafat or anyone else in the Palestinian leadership to do more as the Israelis were destroying the PA’s police forces. There were some spectacular incidents of PA police violence, but it was not a consistent feature of the conflict. Yet demanding that Arafat do more had an important political benefit for Israel and its supporters in the United States: it delegitimized negotiations with the Palestinians, revived the idea that Israel had no partner for peace, and justified further settlement activity on the occupied West Bank.

More recently, during the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas, Washington-based foreign policy experts determined that support for Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, was the best way out of a debilitating pattern in which the IDF invaded Gaza every few years to reestablish Israel’s deterrent. Where had everyone been for the preceding 10 years?

After Arafat’s death in November 2004, Egypt’s director of general intelligence, Omar Suleiman, came to Washington and told the Bush administration and anyone else who would listen that support for Abbas was of paramount importance. If that support was not forthcoming, Suleiman warned, Hamas would prosper politically. This advice largely fell on deaf ears. There seemed to be more interest in assailing Abbas for Palestinian incitement and apparent intransigence (at times well-deserved) than helping him manage an extraordinarily difficult domestic political environment, the logic being that if pressure was brought to bear on the PA, Abbas would demonstrate leadership. It seemed rather that Abbas wanted to avoid an intra-Palestinian fight. When that conflict finally came in June 2007, Abbas’ forces were chased out of Gaza.

The Palestinian president’s weakness, resulting in large part from the challenge Hamas posed, only further reinforced the idea that Israel does not have a partner for peace. All the while, Israelis continued to settle in occupied territory. As an aside, even after the Gaza war, few, if any, in Washington who sagely counseled support for the Palestinian president during the 2014 crisis continued to advocate this policy after the rockets came to a halt and the Israelis withdrew. Rather, with Hamas’ popularity sky-high as a result of the conflict, the demands on Abbas from inside the Beltway grew. When he could not deliver it was proof, once again, that there was no one with whom the Israelis could negotiate.

This is a long way of getting back to that hypothetical meeting between Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed. In their discussion about regional challenges, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is likely to rank low, if it ranks at all. The major Gulf states have bigger problems to worry about, notably the twin challenges of Iran and extremism. This isn’t just true of the Arab Gulf. The Egyptians, traditional players in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, are busy with their own economic challenges, and because Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine, the Egyptians have been even tougher on Gaza than the Israelis.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s call for a renewed peace process last summer was designed more to make himself useful to the United States than anything else. Beyond that there is virtually no interest in the Palestinian issue in official circles around the region. And it is precisely because of that lack of interest that advocates of transferring the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem feel emboldened while offering the seemingly oddest justification for the move.

There may very well be little interest in a peace process, but there does seem to be interest in the location of America’s embassy in Israel. Last Monday, the Saudi cabinet obliquely assailed Trump’s plans for the embassy when it “rejected all attempts to undermine the Palestinians’ right of having full sovereignty over the city of Al-Quds, as the capital of the State of Palestine.” Jordan’s King Abdullah — perhaps Israel’s closest ally in the Middle East and partner of the United States — has called the potential move a “red line” and, along with Abbas, reportedly warned of unspecified consequences should the relocation take place.

One way to sell the move to the Arab world is for the United States to clearly delineate between Jerusalem, where the embassy would be located, and al-Quds, the part of the city where the bulk of the Arab population resides. This is not likely to fly among the Israelis (and Americans) who oppose the idea of two capitals in one city, as well as Arabs who understand full well that Israel is working hard to alter the demographics and geography of Jerusalem to make any distinction between the Jewish and Arab quadrants of the city impossible.

All that said, moving the embassy to Jerusalem is actually the perfect way to shatter the prevailing malaise about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict around the region. It is a move that the Iranians will happily exploit to the fullest, forcing Israel’s partners in the region on the defensive and potentially splitting apart the regional anti-Iran coalition, which needless to say would be bad for both Israel and the United States. It would also undermine Israeli efforts to strengthen ties with Jordan and Egypt as well as develop its surreptitious ties with Arab states in the Gulf.

Then, of course, there is the potential for a third intifada. Observers have been predicting for some time that a new Palestinian uprising is likely. They have been wrong so far, but an embassy move might be an affront of such magnitude that widespread violence returns to the West Bank. If it does, there is no reason to believe that the American-trained Palestinian security forces would hold people back or that Abbas would even order them to do so. Given the likely violent response from Hamas, which has successfully framed the debate in Palestinian society connecting violence and nationalism, Abbas’ best political strategy would be to allow the blood to flow.

It should be clear, then, that despite what its advocates claim, an embassy move is not in anyone's interest -- except, that is, that of Israeli hardliners and their friends in the United States. Rather than demonstrating American resolve and commitment, moving the embassy to Jerusalem actually has the potential to strengthen Iran, weaken Israel’s ties to the Arab world, and sow violence between Palestinians and Israelis. This should all be abundantly clear, but when it comes to U.S. policy in the Middle East, illogical arguments often reign.

By Steven A. Cook

Steven A. Cook's day job is as a foreign policy analyst in Washington, DC. His most recent book, "False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East," was published by Oxford University Press in 2017.

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