Israeli Expert on Jerusalem US Embassy Move: Campaign Pledges Usually Broken but Trump ‘Hard to Predict’

By Genevieve Belmaker | November 21, 2016 | 11:13pm EST
The U.S. Embassy in Israel is located in Tel Aviv, not the capital. (Photo: State Department)

Jerusalem ( – An expert on Israeli-U.S. relations, commenting on President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, says while campaign promises are frequently not kept, Trump “is such an unusual type of incoming president …he’s hard to predict.”

“Since when do candidates who make promises during campaigns implement them?” Eytan Gilboa, a researcher at the Israel-based Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said in an interview.

He added a special caveat in the case of Trump, however.

“He is such an unusual type of incoming president, and given his campaign statements, it is hard to know. He’s hard to predict,” he said. “Because he is so unusual, maybe without much experience or record he will say: ‘I don’t care. Whatever.’”

Gilboa, an expert on American-Israeli relations, U.S. policy in the Middle East and American and Israeli politics, did predict that Trump will be somewhat hands off when it comes to the rest of the world, at the outset of his presidency.

“Given the lack of record – he has no experience and no record on foreign policy – his main test will be on financial issues and immigration,” he said. “He will be less interested in foreign affairs and more focused on domestic affairs.”

Gilboa also predicted that the infamously chilly relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will become a distant memory.

“The climate and environment of decision making in the White House is going to change,” he said, adding that it will become friendlier.

“I think Obama had a difficult relationship with Netanyahu. It became poisonous and difficult to manage.”

As the dust of the presidential election settles, the question of the location of the U.S. Embassy in Israel is one issue that will be closely watched here.

A law passed by Congress 21 years ago directed that the embassy be relocated by the end of 1999, but it also gave the president the authority to waive the order due to security concerns every six months. The waiver has been signed, twice a year, by Republicans and Democratic presidents ever since.

It has become normal for presidential candidates to promise to move the embassy to Israel’s declared capital, and Trump was no exception. He did so publicly, and also through approved statements released by his advisors on Israel.

A statement released by campaign advisers Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman on Trump’s behalf a week before the election stated unequivocally that “the U.S. will recognize Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state and Mr. Trump’s Administration will move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.”

Such a move would likely be hazardous to any future peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and could have serious security ramifications.

The Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, threatened last week that if Trump follows through on his campaign promise to move the embassy, “nobody should blame us for unleashing all of the weapons that we have in the U.N. to defend ourselves, and we have a lot of weapons in the U.N.”

This year’s Republican Party platform repeated earlier pledges to move the embassy to Jerusalem.

“We recognize Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state and call for the American embassy to be moved there in fulfillment of U.S. law,” the document reads.

Every GOP presidential election year platform since 1996 has included a reference to the embassy move, with the exception of 2012, which upheld Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but did not mention the embassy.

Trump’s pick for the position of ambassador to Israel may have some bearing on the final outcome of the embassy issue.

“Many people want this job, both career officials and former politicians,” said Gilboa, who speculated that even Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, might be a potential choice.

Last week former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is strongly pro-Israel, took to Twitter to deny media claims that he had been offered the post.

“Those who know don't talk; those who talk don't know. Only source who matters is Pres-elect,” he tweeted on Nov. 17.

A day later, he added: “Media buzz that I was named Amb to Israel is NOT true. Was never discussed with PE Trump; slot probably not picked until State Dept in place.”

Jerusalem has central to the Jewish faith and history for thousands of years. It is also home to Islam’s third holiest site – the al-Aqsa mosque which is located in the same area as the biblical Temple, Judaism’s most sacred site, once stood..

Israel’s control over eastern parts of Jerusalem is not recognized by the international community, and the Palestinians demand the city as capital of a future independent state.

Gilboa said that despite the U.S. rhetoric, making a major shift could be more problematic than many realize. While completely changing the policy of predecessors is a “natural thing to do” it is difficult because “there’s a lot of continuity in American foreign policy.”

Trump also has some limitations that stem from his relationship with his own party, Gilboa said.

“His basic pool of potential senior officials coming from the Republicans for trusted positions is much more limited than any president in previous periods,” he said. That, coupled with a lack of foreign diplomatic experience, could mean that he will not be as “obsessive” about achieving peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

“Paradoxically [that] could bring new attempts to bring the two sides to the table,” he said, noting that under the outgoing administration, Palestinians believed they had “Obama on their side … and could get whatever they want.”

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