Why U.S. Embassy Move to Jerusalem Is So Fraught: QuickTake Q&A

What Does Netanyahu Hope to Gain From Trump Meeting?

What’s the capital of Israel? Israelis say it’s Jerusalem, and indeed the prime minister’s office is there, as well as the parliament, the highest court and most government ministries. No other country, however, recognizes Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. It’s considered disputed territory, subject to negotiation with the Palestinians. All the embassies in Israel are in Tel Aviv, 70 kilometers to the west. So Israelis perked up when Donald Trump, during the U.S. presidential campaign, vowed to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem, a move that would lend legitimacy to their claim to the city. Israelis have heard this promise from presidential candidates before, only to see it broken after the new president took office. At a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington on Wednesday, Trump said that he would "love to see" the embassy move happen and that his administration was "looking at it with great care."

1. What’s so special about Jerusalem? 

Jerusalem is sacred to followers of the three major monotheistic religions. It is home to the Temple Mount, the holiest site in the world for Jews, who come from around the world to pray at the Western Wall, the last remaining supporting wall of the biblical temple. Muslims revere the same plateau as the Noble Sanctuary, where the Al-Aqsa mosque stands as the third-holiest place in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Not far away in Jerusalem’s Old City is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which Christians revere as the site of Jesus’s tomb. When the United Nations voted in 1947 to divide British-ruled Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states, it didn’t want either side controlling Jerusalem, due to its religious resonance. Instead, it set aside the city as an international zone to be administered by a UN council of trustees.

2. So why does Israel control it?

Arab states rejected the UN partition plan for Palestine and launched a war against the fledgling Jewish state. The war left Israel in control of west Jerusalem, where the bulk of the Jewish population lived, and Jordan in control of the mostly Arab eastern side, containing the holiest sites. In 1967, Israel captured east Jerusalem in the Six-Day War and formally annexed those portions of the city to form one municipality under Israeli law. In 1980, its parliament passed a law declaring "complete and united" Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital. Most nations rejected the move. The only two that complied, Costa Rica and El Salvador, eventually moved their diplomatic posts to Tel Aviv under pressure from Arab states.

3. Does anyone still envision an international zone?

Not really. Vatican officials have periodically called for an "internationally guaranteed special statute" for Jerusalem. However, the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, acting collectively to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians, have embraced the position that it’s up to the two sides to negotiate the status of Jerusalem. The issue has been among the knottiest in peace talks since the first Israeli-Palestinian accord, the 1993 Oslo agreement. Palestinians insist the city must be their capital and have picked a spot to build their parliament in east Jerusalem’s Abu Dis neighborhood. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government says Jerusalem will remain the “undivided and eternal capital” of the Jewish people.

4. What has the U.S. position been?

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush vowed as candidates to move the embassy to Jerusalem but backed away once in office amid warnings that the move could spark Arab violence or scuttle peace talks. The U.S. Congress passed a law in 1995 requiring that the embassy be moved to Jerusalem by 1999, but the legislation included a provision allowing the president to waive the move for six months in the interest of national security -- and that’s what has happened ever since. Before leaving the White House, Barack Obama signed the waiver for a last time on Dec. 1, meaning Trump will have to show his own cards by the end of May.

5. What would a move entail?

The U.S. has no facility in Jerusalem big enough to house the work of its embassy in Tel Aviv. It could build one, which would take years. Since 1989, it has leased from the Israeli government a large plot of land in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood, presumably for a future embassy. Robert Satloff, head of the pro-Israel Washington Institute, argues that Trump could fulfill his promise by moving the American ambassador’s office to an existing U.S. facility in Jerusalem. The U.S. has a consulate-general in Jerusalem, which according to its website serves as the "de facto representative" of the U.S. government to the Palestinian Authority, which administers the limited self-rule that Palestinians exercise under their agreements with Israel.

6. What might happen if the embassy were moved? 

Predictions range from a new war to violent protests to nothing other than diplomatic complaints. Palestinian leaders have suggested they might withdraw their recognition of Israel and shut down the Palestinian Authority, effectively ending any cooperation with Israel. A spokesman for the mainstream Palestinian political party Fatah predicted an embassy move could lead to a third intifada, or popular uprising against Israel. Members of Netanyahu’s cabinet say those threats are bluffs and that nothing would happen that the Israeli police and military couldn’t handle. Some analysts suggest Trump could mitigate the backlash by placing the embassy in mostly Jewish west Jerusalem and enlisting leaders in Jordan, Egypt and the Persian Gulf to make the case that the move wouldn’t prejudice a decision on the status of east Jerusalem in future negotiations.

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