What Happened to ‘America First’?: The Example of Jerusalem

In all of the (deserved) fuss about the recently-passed Senate tax bill, an important development in American foreign relations and global geopolitics just may get lost in the shuffle. That critical change? This week, the United States may become the first nation to fully recognize Jerusalem as the legitimate and rightful capital of the state of Israel and begin the process of relocating our Israel-based embassy from its current location in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, where the Israeli government is based. That may not sound like a big deal, especially in the context of the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, in which Congress forced the Executive branch to either recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the embassy there by May 31, 1999 or waive that requirement every 6 months along with an explanation as to why the requirement was being waived, but I assure you it is. There are very good reasons why Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all chose to waive that requirement every 6 months during their administrations, despite popular support for the Act in Congress and among American Jews, a large constituency in many states. Personally, as someone who has visited Israel on multiple occasions for business and who finds the country both beautiful and intriguing (and has been to both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem), I believe that keeping our embassy in Tel Aviv is in our national interest. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem, in concert with recognition of that eternal city as Israel’s capital and sovereign territory, would not only harm our national security and American interests, it would lead to painful consequences for our allies across the region.

There are a few distinct types of negative impact which would result from any embassy move or Jerusalem recognition, and they largely fall into three categories: harm to American security interests in the region, international and regional blowback on the Israelis and our other allies in the Middle East, and negative business, social, and logistic impacts for Americans traveling to and doing business in Israel.

US Embassy Tel Aviv
The US Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel.      Image Credit: CNN

First, I’ll touch on the immediate national security and other negative impacts on American foreign policy interests in the Middle East that would result from an embassy move. It is abundantly clear from the statistics on UN Security Council resolutions that the United States is, has historically been, and will continue to be Israel’s closest ally in the global body politic, yet our politicians continue to look for further ways to publicly show our support for our ’embattled’ fellow democracy. Becoming the first state to truly recognize Israel’s sovereign claim over Jerusalem as its capital by both declaring that stance and solidifying our support by moving our embassy would definitely count as a show of solidarity with our ally, but is that extreme move truly necessary? Everyone knows we support the Israelis, especially under the Trump administration, and the potential ramifications of an embassy move and recognition are vast and nearly all negative. Recognizing Jerusalem as sovereign Israeli territory would basically crater the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, as the status of that city is one of the most contentious and divisive issues that is on the table in negotiations. The city has historically been seen by the global community as a world city, with its status to be determined by negotiations; if the US decides to unilaterally declare that status moot and say Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, the peace process would take a strong turn towards failure. International observers have clearly stated this, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who stated that “such a US decision would destroy the peace process and drag the region into further instability,” while the head of the Arab League said that the move would “nourish fanaticism and violence.” Even as the American-led efforts against so-called Islamic State are largely concluding in Syria and Iraq, with success in terms of eliminating enemy combatants, an obviously inflammatory move like recognizing Jerusalem could easily incite support for the group and help reconstitute its fighting force. Any goodwill gained by American efforts in the IS campaign would be destroyed by the move in Israel, and our standing in the region, even among erstwhile allies like the Saudis, Jordanians, and Emiratis, would significantly decline, harming our efforts on important national security issues like terrorism financing.

Although the US will pay quite a price for recognizing Jerusalem as capital of Israel and relocating our embassy there, the brunt of the burden will fall on our Middle Eastern allies, including Israel itself. As stated above, the move will undoubtedly incite violence and protest action within the Palestinian populations throughout the Gulf region, whether they are within the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the millions of Palestinians living as refugees in Jordan, or the diaspora in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and other nations. A new Palestinian intifada, or uprising, could be called for by Hamas, which could lead to mass bloodshed in Israel and the Occupied Territories, as the group has already called for “an uprising in Jerusalem so that this conspiracy does not pass.” The worst of this may end up falling on the Jordanians and Israelis, especially as the Jordanians are the custodians of the many Islamic holy sites located within the city limits of Jerusalem, including Al Aqsa, the 3rd holiest site in all of Islam. King Abdullah II of Jordan, who is largely popular in his nation and around the Middle East, could see a drastic fall in his image if the recognition comes to pass and he is seen as not having the legitimacy to secure the holy sites he is supposedly custodian of. Jordan, recall, is a key American security ally in the Middle East and has been for decades. It also sits at a crucial crossroads, between Israel, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, and a government collapse there could impact the security of the entire Middle East region. Not only could Israel and Jordan be impacted, but war could spread to neighboring Lebanon as well. Tensions are already high between Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Israeli government, but a contentious recognition of Jerusalem combined with a third intifada could absolutely spark a new Lebanese-Israeli war, especially given the fragmented state of Lebanese politics. This move would not only outrage Palestinians and nations which host large Palestinian populations, but Muslim nations in general, as Jerusalem has been considered an international holy city for a considerable time. Significant pressure would be exerted on various Muslim countries to slow cooperation with the US, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, and even possibly Muslim-majority nations as far afield as Malaysia and Indonesia. Our security arrangements with these nations vary widely, but we have some degree of cooperation with all of them; losing these valuable partnerships over a move which helps the US none would be both shortsighted and, frankly, idiotic.

Azrieli Center Skyscrapers in Tel Aviv, Israel.   Image Credit: World Travel Guide

Finally, we come to the impacts this move could have on American citizens traveling to Israel for business, leisure, or other personal reasons, and the simple logistic issues moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would cause. Just to be clear, the US currently has its major embassy in Tel Aviv, a city less populated than Jerusalem but with a metro area population far exceeding that of the holy city, and a smaller consulate in Jerusalem itself. So if Americans have issues in either city, there is currently a place for them to go for help. The major international airport in Israel, Ben Gurion (great airport by the way), is twice as close to Tel Aviv than it is to Jerusalem (25.3km to 54.2km), and although Jerusalem is the most visited city by tourists in Israel, Tel Aviv is close behind. Tel Aviv and its surrounding environs are also by far the major commercial area for Israel, home to the nation’s sole stock exchange, a major high-tech center with both myriad global entities located there as well as a successful and burgeoning startup sector, and the transit hub of the country with rail, bus, and major highway access all routed through the city. Personally, I have done business in and around Tel Aviv and I can state from experience that the nation’s major economic activity is centered in this region. This is where international companies come to set up Israel-based offices, where investors go to find Israeli companies to invest in, and where local entrepreneurs will go to chase their dreams. Moving the American embassy away from this central hub solely for political reasons will harm the increasing number of American companies, investors, and businesspeople who come to Israel to do business and rely on the support of their home government to assist when they require assistance or local contacts. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like without the American embassy in Tel Aviv assisting us with procuring the appropriate work permits for our time in Israel, and helping us when there were issues during our work stay. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem would also increase the likelihood of American citizens being targeted for attack by Palestinian terrorists, as the chances of a third intifada resulting from a recognition of Jerusalem would be high. Jerusalem, being itself a divided city, is a far more prominent and reachable target for Palestinian raiders, which has been seen in the number of attacks carried out there versus in Tel Aviv over the past few years. Although moving the embassy to Jerusalem may check something off the ‘Trump 2016 Campaign Promises List’, it would undeniably hurt Americans traveling to Israel for business, pleasure, or other reasons, as Tel Aviv is a better location for economic, logistic, and social reasons.

We as citizens, and the Trump administration as our government, must remember that embassies are not just political footballs, they in fact serve an important purpose in representing ourselves to the nation and the region in which the embassy is located, as well as actually assisting our own citizens who are there on the ground. Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving our Tel Aviv embassy there would undoubtedly cause a firestorm of controversy in the Arab world, drive conflict against American interests, and harm regular Americans traveling for business or leisure. It certainly doesn’t put ‘America First’, as there is no national interest rationale for moving our embassy besides the fact that the President promised it during his campaign. The Middle East is dealing with enough problems right now, and we don’t need to drop a bomb right into the middle of those issues just for the hell of it. Keep the embassy in Tel Aviv, keep the status of Jerusalem open for negotiation, and move forward with engagement in the Arab world. That is the way this peace process can continue and the only way to avoid an intractable conflict involving Israel in the immediate future.

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