Moving US Embassy to Jerusalem Would Be a Dangerous Provocation
The Trump administration might make a historic break with US policy and draw international outrage by following through on its rhetoric, warns New Internationalism director Phyllis Bennis
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
In one of the very first moves at the U.S. Senate in 2017, three Republican Senators including Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio introduced a bill to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. There is a 1995 law that already exists on the books, that is, when President Clinton was in office, which mandates a similar move. But past Presidents used their discretion to postpone it. The new law would require the State Department to move the Embassy or face funding restrictions. Given that President-elect Donald Trump has already committed himself to moving the Embassy, it is quite likely that the Department of State will comply. This would make the U.S. the only country in the world to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Joining us now to talk about the implications of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a Fellow and a Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She’s the author of many books, including “Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer”. Good to have you, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Always good to be with you, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Phyllis, let’s get right down to this. As I said in the intro, this would make U.S. the only country in the world to establish its embassy in Jerusalem instead of Tel Aviv. What are the implications of this?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, you know, this is, as you say, something that has been on the books for 20 years now. No President has been willing to actually make the move, despite the long-standing campaign efforts of lots of people in Congress and lots of Presidents to say, “If elected I will make sure that the U.S. Embassy moves…” They were always very careful to include in the language of the bill this rider that says, “The President can say, ‘If it’s not in the U.S. national security interests, he or she can put it off, can delay it for at least six months.'” And every President since that time has, in fact, used that waiver to say, “No. We’re not actually going to move the embassy.”
There is no country in the world that has its embassy in Jerusalem. No country in the world recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The United Nations does not recognize Jerusalem and there is a host of U.N. resolutions — Security Council, General Assembly — all the way back to the famous Resolution 181, the so-called “Partition Resolution,” that first divided historic Palestine into what was supposed to be a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. All of them said, “Jerusalem is separate.” The term they used in 1947 in Resolution 181, was the Latin term of corpus separatum — a separate body that would be managed, governed, not by either one of the two states, but by an international agency, presumably the United Nations itself, because it was understood to be a special case. It’s the centerpiece of the three monotheistic religions, etcetera. And it was always understood that it was not going to be anybody’s capital until final status negotiations of whatever sort were finished. They are far from finished. They are, in fact, not even underway.
So what this now has become is a campaign claim in the United States for pro-Israel members of Congress and Presidents. And what we now see is, for the first time, a President who’s been elected, who says not only that he supports this, but he has, in fact, appointed David Friedman as his Ambassador to Israel who is known for being a financial supporter of the settlements, has said that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace and are certainly not illegal, and should be the basis for Israel to actually annex the territory of the West Bank. And he has gone on to say he looks forward to carrying out his work in the eternal, undivided capital of Israel in Jerusalem.
So, the fact that Trump has appointed David Friedman — his bankruptcy lawyer, not a diplomat — as his Ambassador to Israel is sort of an indication, although it’s certainly not a guarantee, as there’s no done deal here yet, that the decision will actually be implemented to move the embassy. It would cause enormous provocative responses. Whether they would be violent or not is very hard to say — it’s certainly as likely as not. But the anger, the antagonism, the both diplomatic and public rage — across the world, not simply in the Palestinian territories, but in the Arab world, in the Muslim world, in Europe – indeed, across the world, there is widespread recognition that this kind of a move is so provocative. So likely to inspire opposition which could become violent, all those things, that there would be outrage towards the United States if a future Trump Administration actually implements this plan.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, it is so unbelievable that they would. President Mahmoud Abbas has already said that he does not believe Trump will follow through on the move. But if he does, where will this leave the Palestinians? And they have threatened a response if Trump carries this out. And what will that response be?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yeah, you know, it’s very hard to say what the Palestinian official diplomatic response would be. The Palestinians have few cards to play here. Palestinian diplomacy has been largely stalled, other than at the United Nations itself. There would clearly be a United Nations condemnation of this action. It would not be in the form of a U.N. Security Council Resolution because the U.S. would clearly veto such a resolution. But there would be widespread antagonism at the U.N. The General Assembly would likely come into special session, as it has in the past to respond to Israeli provocations, and pass an overwhelmingly popular resolution that would condemn the United States’ action. But the ability of the Palestinian authority itself to respond in a serious way, there’s not a lot of options there.
The response would come, I think, in two ways. There was a recent interview in the last few hours by one of the leading pro-Jerusalem as capital organizations in Israel who talked about how important this would be for American Jews. And what he said here, I have the quote, he said, “I think that U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will have a gradual and important influence on American Jews. It will lead the Israeli government to facilitate significant construction of more affordable housing.” That means more Israeli settlements in Jerusalem. “And more middle class American Jews will then be able to afford to buy here, either for investment or for actual aliyah.” Meaning to move to Israel. “All in all, the Jewish population of the city will receive a large boost from this move.” The Jewish population. The Palestinian population of Jerusalem will be the ones who pay the biggest price.
But I think that the response is much more likely to be an international response — both diplomatic, from U.S. close allies, as well as its opponents — as well as a public response, which will be, including I would assume, demonstrations at U.S. embassies around the world. They will be targeted for longstanding protests. Hopefully, those would not become violent, but they may well.
We should also note that there’s a plan in the House, matching the Senate resolution that’s on the agenda for tomorrow, a House resolution — Resolution 11. It also aims to escalate the pro-Israeli rhetoric. This one, among other things, identifies the U.N. Security Council Resolution criticizing illegal Israeli settlements two weeks ago, calling that resolution a “obstacle to peace”. Using the language, of course, that has so often been used about Israeli settlements. It makes all kinds of false claims about what that resolution says and does not say.
So the combination of these two resolutions, they may be simply the usual early-in-the-term efforts by pro-Israel Representatives and Senators to say to their pro-Israel constituents, including the lobbies that have provided significant financial support to their campaigns, “You see, we did what you want us to do.” It may be nothing more than that. But with this administration in the White House, we can’t assume that the usual practice will be underway this time. All bets are off now. They could actually try to implement this and there’s no telling what the very, very dangerous reactions to this provocative move could look like.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, then, Phyllis, give us a brief history of why Jerusalem is such a contested site. And I know it has religious significance, but there’s more to it.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: There is more to it, but it’s ironic that the religious significance is what is so often referred to. There’s the usual discussion about the status quo being unacceptable, except in Jerusalem there’s a lot of talk about nothing should be done to contest the status quo. The status quo, of course, means that Israel, the Israeli military, is in full control of the entire City of Jerusalem. The green line, which once divided Jerusalem with the eastern half governed by Jordan — but what was a Palestinian city, the capital of the Palestinian territory — and West Jerusalem after 1948, had been the center of the State of Israel. So it was a divided city at that time.
After 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem — along with the rest of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Syrian Golan Heights, the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula — the role of Jerusalem became the symbolic core of what Israeli occupation looked like. So occupation took the form immediately of settlements being built in occupied Jerusalem. Some of the oldest settlements that were built in 1968, ’69, just in the first months and years right after the occupation, are in and around Jerusalem. And the goal here was to assert Israeli control over Arab Jerusalem — a population that was overwhelmingly Arab. There had always been a Jewish presence in Jerusalem, and a very tiny Jewish presence even in East Jerusalem, in the old Jewish quarter. But it was really tiny.
Now, the dividing line, the old green line, of course, is no longer physically visible. East Jerusalem is still an identifiable part of the city and is still predominantly Palestinian, but it no longer is, itself, a Palestinian city. There are no over 250,000 Jewish Israelis living in Jewish-only settlements in Palestinian Arab East Jerusalem, occupied since 1967 in complete violation of international law and U.N. resolutions.
So the question of the importance of Jerusalem goes to the core of what Israeli occupation looks like. It’s not just about religious aspects, it’s not just about will Jews have the right to pray at the Western Wall? Will Muslims have the right to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque? Will Christians have the ability to pray at the Christian holy sites in Jerusalem? It’s not just about that. It’s about the land where people live. It’s a living city. It’s not simply a theme park, it’s not simply a religious center — it’s a living city with real people whose lives are completely circumscribed by the reality of Israeli occupation.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Phyllis, I thank you so much for that. I look forward to having you back as we follow this, what’s going to unfold tomorrow and beyond. Thanks so much.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thank you, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.