State Dept.: Moving Embassy to Jerusalem Could ‘Needlessly’ Put Diplomats, Troops ‘in Harm’s Way’

By Patrick Goodenough | January 5, 2017 | 4:12am EST
Façade of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel’s commercial center but not its capital. (Photo: State Department)

(CNSNews.com) – Moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem could endanger U.S. diplomats and Marine guards there and elsewhere in the region – “and needlessly so” –  State Department spokesman John Kirby warned Wednesday.

He said the Obama administration, like previous ones, believes relocating the embassy “is not a good idea.”

“It’s not constructive to the overall peace process. It could actually put some of our people, some of our troops, those that work at the embassy, in harm’s way, and needlessly so.”

“It could exacerbate tensions not just there but elsewhere in the region too,” Kirby added, “because it could exacerbate the tensions that already exist between Israelis and Palestinians. There and elsewhere in the region.”

Less than three weeks before the inauguration of a president-elect who has pledged to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv, Republican senators have introduced legislation aimed at ensuring that happens.

Legislation enacted in 1995 recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and required the embassy to be moved there by May 1999 at the latest – but contained “national security” waiver provisions that have been invoked by presidents at six-monthly intervals ever since to delay compliance.

Crucially, the bill introduced by Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) amends the 1995 legislation by removing the waiver provisions.

“It’s time for Congress and the president-elect to eliminate the loophole that has allowed presidents in both parties to ignore U.S. law and delay our embassy's rightful relocation to Jerusalem for over two decades,” said Rubio.

Cruz said it was “time to cut through the double-speak and broken promises and do what Congress said we should do in 1995.”

President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to move the embassy, backed up last month by his nominee for U.S. ambassador to Israel, has put the issue of the city’s status back in the spotlight

The development also comes against the backdrop of the U.N. Security Council resolution adopted last month – after the Obama administration chose to abstain – which effectively declares eastern Jerusalem, including Judaism’s most sacred site, to be “Palestinian territory.”

Israel and its supporters said this amounts to prejudging, in the Palestinians’ favor, an issue which according to the Oslo interim peace accords is meant to be negotiated directly between the parties themselves.

Interestingly, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has also complained about the Jerusalem issue being prejudged – although in his case, in response to Trump’s pledge to move the embassy.

Noting that the question of Jerusalem was among “issues for negotiations” under Oslo, Erekat said at a press conference last month that “no one should preempt or prejudge, because this will be a destruction of the peace process as a whole.”

Division, reunification

Moving the embassy to Israel’s capital would be a powerful signal of support for one of America’s closest allies.

But the Palestinian leadership, which questions 3,000-year-old Jewish claims to Jerusalem, demands the city as capital of a future independent state.

The U.N. in its 1947 “partition plan” for the area decreed that Jerusalem, which is important to Jews, Muslims and Christians, should be placed under special U.N. administration. Jewish leaders accepted the U.N. proposals but the Arab world violently rejected them, and launched a war with the declared aim of annihilating the newly-declared State of Israel.

The war ended with Israel in control of western Jerusalem and Jordan occupying eastern portions. Divided for 19 years, it was reunited during the 1967 Six Day War and has remained under Israeli administration ever since.

The international community does not recognize Israeli control over eastern parts of the city. But although Israeli control of western Jerusalem is supposedly uncontested, even that area is considered too controversial for any country to locate its embassy there.

(The last handful of countries to have embassies in Jerusalem withdrew after Israel’s parliament in 1980 declared the city to be Israel’s eternal and indivisible capital, with holdouts Costa Rica and El Salvador the last to leave, 11 years ago.)

Pledging to move the embassy to Jerusalem has been a staple in party platforms and presidential election campaigns since the 1990s, with pledges to do so made by Republican nominees George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney, and by Democrats Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.

Once in office, however, Presidents Clinton and Bush invoked the waiver to stall the move. So too did Obama, who while not having made the pledge while campaigning, did voice support in 2008 for Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital.

But some observers believe Trump may be different.

“[W]hat makes Trump’s threat serious this time around is his extreme support for Israel. He is madly in love with it and especially with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies director Hani Al-Masri warned in an op-ed Wednesday.

“We stand on the threshold of a new era that may witness a shift in American policy, which is already bad, to the worst it has been on the Palestinian issue,” he wrote. “Trump’s pledge should not be underestimated.”

In a Gallup poll last March, 24 percent of American respondents said they support moving the embassy to Jerusalem, 20 percent said they oppose it, and 56 percent said they do not know enough about the issue to offer an opinion.

‘Middle East’s only liberal, pluralist democracy’

Meanwhile the Australian and British governments have both dismissed calls by some politicians for those countries’ embassies to move to Jerusalem.

In Australia, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott suggested that one way the country could “demonstrate its unswerving support for Israel, as the Middle East’s only liberal, pluralist democracy, might be to join any move by the Trump administration to move its embassy to Jerusalem.”

Another conservative politician, Sen. Malcolm Roberts said Australia should move its embassy, “with or without America’s lead.”

Last month Britain’s former Justice Secretary Michael Gove, a member of the ruling Conservative Party, wrote in an op-ed that Britain should celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration by moving its embassy to Jerusalem and inviting Queen Elizabeth to open it.

But the governments of Australia – arguably one of Israel’s strongest allies in the international community – and Britain both said they have no plans to move their embassies.

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