Reassessing the US-embassy-to-Jerusalem situation: Has Trump changed his mind?

January 24, 2017
An Orthodox Jewish man stands in front of the U.S Embassy in Tel Aviv. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

I am on record about the two main questions concerning moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.

I am on record in support of such a move, at least in principle (in fact, I believe that the rationale behind keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv is false).

I am also on record predicting that the Trump administration is going to move the embassy to Jerusalem, as candidate Trump, and President-elect Trump, and the future ambassador to Israel Friedman vowed time and again.

Why did I believe Trump was going to make the move? First, because I believe that Trump is quite serious about many of the promises he made during the campaign. His decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership proves this point. Second, because (as I wrote) moving the embassy is not complicated but highly visible – namely, it is an action that further establishes Trump’s intention to depart with American orthodoxy.

But yesterday, as I was watching the first formal White House briefing of the new administration, it became clear that reassessing my position might be necessary. Not the principled position that the embassy should be in Jerusalem, but rather the prediction that Trump will not repeat previous presidents in making the promise without also feeling the need to implement it.

Of course, I was not the only one to notice the highly non-committal language of Sean Spicer, the WH press secretary. In a long briefing, there were issues on which Spicer said that the President is committed. There were issues on which he said that a later announcement is to be expected. There were issues – the Supreme Court nomination is one example – on which he gave a specific time table. But on moving the embassy to Jerusalem he did nothing of this sort: he was evasive, he was dodging the question. There is no longer a firm commitment, there is now a “process.” And the process does not deal with the question of how and when to move the embassy – it is seemingly a process which will determine if the Trump administration intends to move the embassy. As Spicer framed it: “If it were already a decision, then we wouldn’t be going through a process.”

Why would Trump reconsider the Jerusalem promise? There are four options, and for each of them I found some support among officials in Jerusalem and Washington.

The first option is the obvious one: Some things seem simple in theory but get complicated in practice. When Trump realized that such a move could cost him a lot in the Middle East, when he heard that Arab leaders, including leaders with whom he wants to have good relations, vehemently oppose such a move, when he heard that a move of the embassy might serve as excuse for retaliation against US forces or diplomats – he decided that the cost might be too high. The benefit, on the other hand, is low. Israel is going to applaud him, as will some of his supporters in the US. But for both these constituencies he can easily offer sufficient compensation, less visible, no less tangible. So Trump might have calculated that this is one election promise he can easily break without having to pay a heavy price for it.

The second option is organizational: Trump just appointed a Secretary of State. The new secretary deserves a hearing before a decision of such magnitude on an issue that is, at least on principle, under his jurisdiction is made. President Trump is likely to make decisions in the future that his Secretary is going to oppose. That is the nature of all administrations – decisions are made, and not every time there is a consensus. Still, there is no reason for Trump to make his secretary seem negligible on the first day in office, by committing himself to something that Rex Tillerson, his secretary, has not yet considered (it did not come up during his hearing).

The third option is Trump-like: The new president emphasizes time and again his great skill at negotiations. In Trump’s world, everything has a price tag, and every American move has to be compensated. So yes, the president still believes that moving the embassy is the right thing to do, and still agrees to do it – but he wants to get something out of it. If moving the embassy is something that Israel wants, it ought to give the US something in return. Moving the embassy, like all other things, is negotiable. Trump will do it, if Trump gets something out of it.

The fourth option is tactical: Trump has a busy schedule. He wants to make headlines, and give the impression of a president in constant action. Yesterday was about withdrawing from the TPP. Today will be about something else. Next week, or maybe the week after, he will appoint a new Supreme Court Justice, or signal the end to NAFTA as we know it, or act on immigration. The Jerusalem embassy deserves its own moment in the sun. Trump could be saving it for later – for the Netanyahu visit in February, for the AIPAC Policy Conference in March, for Israel’s 50th Jerusalem Day in May. From a PR standpoint, saving Jerusalem for later is wise. And the more the administration seems hesitant about it today – the better the impact tomorrow.

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