With the flourish of a White House press release on June 1st, it seemed the Trump administration has opted to say both yes and no to the option of moving the US Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv, its current home, to Jerusalem. It’s all a matter of interpretation.
The act of moving the US Embassy to Israel would be highly controversial. Palestinian opposition is enormous to such an act, and the Israeli security apparatus has often made clear it believes such a move would be tantamount to inviting a Third Intifada to begin, such is the violence expected to occur in such a scenario. This being the case, mostly only the Israeli right-wing, and in some cases, only the far-right, has expressed a serious interest in the move.
The six-month waiver that has been continuously re-signed by every president since Bill Clinton is necessary to avoid implementing a 1995 Congressional mandate on moving the embassy to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, from Tel Aviv, its largest city and current home of nearly all diplomatic stations. In joining Clinton and George W Bush in breaking his campaign promise to immediately move the embassy, Trump has however also introduced some vagueness to the press statement by indicating he will not break the promise.
Within Israel, there had initially been much jubilation on the right side of the spectrum as those in the Likud and Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) parties assumed Trump would immediately act on his campaign promise to move the embassy. In fact, Israeli media even reported before his inauguration that he would do so on his first day in office. However, as the months wore on the administration did not act on that campaign promise and the reports proved incorrect. Conflicting reports emerged as to whether or not Netanyahu mentioned it to Trump when he visited Washington in February.When Trump visited Israel in late May, he made no mention of the embassy at all.
One interesting element to the release is its odd timing – released a week and a half or so after Trump concluded his short visit to Israel and Palestine – but also the very day that his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accords was announced.
It may simply be a coincidence since the last waiver signed by President Obama is about to expire, or it may have been an opportunistic attempt to signal to right-wing proponents of moving the Embassy, as well as to the Netanyahu government in Israel, that Trump is still on the Israeli side of the equation, while simultaneously hoping it may be lost in the hubbub of the Paris Accords uproar around the world.
The real question is why the press release is formulated as it is, and why there was no public mention of it by Trump himself. In other words, is the intention of the release to be quiet and move away from discussing the issue, or to highlight it, or simply to send a message to those that Trump believes need to hear a certain message? In order to make such a determination, the order of the sentences matters greatly and must be considered.
The way much of the press has interpreted it is to take the first sentence, which says that Trump has delayed moving the embassy but is still holding onto the US-Israeli alliance, from which this is not “in any way a retreat.” Thus, the first sentence is relatively bad for the prospects of the embassy being moved.
The middle sentence reflects upon this as a decision made “to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.” However, the third and final sentence reiterates his intention to move it, stating it is not a question of if, but rather when, “the move happens.”
If the sentences were reversed, and the last were first, one might take this to mean that actually, Trump intends on moving the embassy at some point in his Presidency. However, as things stand it seems he is either quite confident of achieving peace and then moving the embassy after an accord is reached, or is purposely setting the bar for moving the embassy so high that he will not be breaking his promise at all by not moving it during his term, if peace is not achieved.
It seems the pessimists on the Israeli right would be correct in considering the embassy move off the table for this presidency. Peace looks quite far off, indeed. And yet, if it is achieved, certainly a small act like moving the embassy would be quite easier to pull off in a time of hope and jubilation. The world has waited fifty years for such an agreement – the move of the embassy seems to be a long way from happening considering the odds.