Photographer: Mahmoud Zayat/AFP/Getty Images
Middle East

Israel Needs Its Arab Friends More Than U.S. Embassy Move

The big risk of relocating in Jerusalem isn't that it will anger the Palestinians, but that it will anger the Saudis.

For the last eight years the American president has approached the Jewish state the way a do-gooder deals with an alcoholic friend. You know the pose: Because we care so much about your long-term survival, we want to help you end your addiction to apartment construction in East Jerusalem.

To put it mildly, Donald Trump has a different perspective. It's not just that he has nominated his bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, an enthusiast of greater Israel, to be his ambassador there. Nor is it the elimination of language about a "two state solution" in the Republican Party's platform for 2016. It's that the incoming president's administration is promising to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem after the election.

It's been the other way since the 1980s. Usually presidents promise to move the embassy in the campaign and break that promise while in office. Trump looks like he is going to keep his word. As Friedman said in a statement last week, he looks forward to conducting his official diplomatic business "from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem."

For many Trump supporters this is good news. Dayenu, as some might say. Congress has been on record since the 1990s endorsing a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. Moving the embassy would help discredit those who seek to delegitimize Israel. This was Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer's argument Tuesday evening at an embassy Hannukah reception. 

With all due respect to Ambassador Dermer, this is risky business. Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies told me Tuesday before the ambassador's remarks: "I have heard from Israelis that any sudden moves on the U.S. position on Jerusalem would potentially precipitate a third intifada, disrupt the strategic ties between Jordan and Israel and cause a break in the quiet diplomacy with Saudi Arabia."      

Dan Arbell, who served as Israel's deputy chief of mission in Washington from 2009 to 2012, also worries about the embassy move. He told me it risked making Israel's quiet relationships in the region more prickly. "I wouldn't go as far as saying it will be an end to the Jordanian or Egyptian peace agreement," he said. "But it will overshadow the increasing cooperation on the security side, and it will make it harder to come out of the closet with this cooperation, which is in Israel's interest."

For supporters of the Oslo peace process, now in its 23rd year, moving the embassy would bring catastrophe. U.S. policy has held that the status of East Jerusalem, which Israel won in the 1967 Six Day War, should be determined through negotiations with the Palestinians. In 1980, Israel officially annexed East Jerusalem, declaring the unified city as its capital. Since then, its municipal boundaries have expanded.

Already many observers are predicting blowback. Sarah Yerkes, a former U.S. diplomat who worked at the State Department's bureau of Palestinian Affairs, said Monday at an event for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, "You could see an uprising from Palestinians, the Egyptians and the Jordanians."

Saeb Erekhat, the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator, said Monday such a move would result in his organization officially withdrawing recognition of Israel.

Now it should be noted that Erekhat is always threatening to quit the peace process. Matthew Kalman, an Israel-based journalist, helpfully compiled Erekhat's previous threats along these lines. What's more, it's worth asking whether the Palestinians could get any angrier at Israel. During the Barack Obama presidency, Israelis have endured a "stabbing intifada" as well as waves of Palestinians committing arson and vehicular slaughter in the name of resistance. All the while, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, has praised the killers in public as martyrs and heroes.  

At the same time, Abbas has not ended security cooperation with Israel. When social media encouraged Palestinians to stab Jews at random, Abbas quietly dispatched his police to confiscate knives from high schools.

All of this gets to the particular predicament a sudden embassy move would pose to Israel. It's fair to ask how much worse things could get on the Palestinian street. Still, the Israelis have a lot to lose behind the scenes.

Part of this is because of the rise of Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia, who were bitter enemies for the first half-century of the Jewish State's existence, today are quiet partners in trying to check Iran's rise. The same is true with the United Arab Emirates. With Egypt and Jordan, Israel has peace treaties, which explicitly state that the status of Jerusalem should be determined through negotiations.

Arab diplomats in recent days have told me that they worry an embassy move would stoke violent protests in their own countries.  

Part of this problem can be mitigated. Writing in the New York Sun, former State Department official Efraim Cohen sketched out how Trump could decide to call the U.S. consulate in West Jerusalem an "embassy," and avoid the messy process of actually constructing a new compound inside Israel's capital. If this move was coupled with a rhetorical commitment to the Palestinians, reiterating the U.S. position that Jerusalem's status should be negotiated, Trump and his new ambassador could thread the needle.

All of that said, is this worth the risk? To be sure, it has its upsides. Israel since its founding has fought a political war with most of the world just for recognition of its right to exist. A U.S. embassy in Jerusalem is a potent symbol that the world's most powerful democracy affirms that right without condition.

But it is nonetheless just a symbol. Today, Israel has tangible diplomatic opportunities in the region its founders could have never imagined. The Saudis work closely on security and intelligence challenges with a state it still officially calls, "the Zionist entity." Israel's relationships with Jordan and Egypt have never been better, despite the fact that the peace process is a dead letter.

If Trump wants to be a good friend to Israel, he will focus on how to bring these relationships out into the open. That will be harder to do if one of his first acts as president is to move the embassy to Jerusalem. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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