Why Is Trump Intent on Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem?

It would make Netanyahu happy, but why should that dictate U.S. policy? Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In an attempt to somehow win over Jewish voters while also running a vaguely anti-Semitic campaign and winning endorsements from literal neo-Nazis, last year then-candidate Donald Trump made a promise (in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, of course) to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, should he somehow ever become president.

The approximately zero voters who went for Trump solely on the basis of this promise are now crossing their fingers that the president is about to make good on it. U.S. officials have been teasing since Friday that Trump may announce as soon as Tuesday that the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. While Trump wouldn’t be moving the diplomatic mission just yet, he’d be reaffirming his administration’s intent to relocate it.

Much is still unknown about this announcement. CNN’s sources say, for instance, that it may be “softened” to refer specifically to West Jerusalem, which would change the flavor of the statement considerably. Indeed, that might even conflict with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements that Jerusalem is Israel’s “eternal, undivided” capital. It would still be transgressive of Trump to move the embassy there, however, as other countries have refrained from setting up diplomatic missions in the divided city until its final status is settled.

Speaking at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum in Washington on Sunday, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser on Middle East peace, said the president was “still looking at a lot of different facts” and will announce the decision to move the embassy “at the right time” — suggesting that this move is a matter of when, not if, as Trump himself has maintained. Asked about it on Sunday morning, national security adviser H. R. McMaster said he was “not sure” what Trump would do. “We’ve given him options,” McMaster told Fox News’s Chris Wallace.

More important here than the “what” and the “whether” is the “wherefore”: Why would Trump make such a promise, and why would he make good on it? Recognizing Jerusalem and moving the embassy there are heavily symbolic gestures that Israel (especially Netanyahu and his right-wing supporters) would love to see. As Aaron David Miller — who has been party to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations under both Democratic and Republican presidents — explains, that’s all the more reason not to make those gestures unilaterally, without asking Israel for anything in return or doing so as part of any broader agreement. The Palestinians will be furious, violent protests could erupt at U.S. embassies … everything about this just seems to add fuel to the fire.

It would also conflict with the administration’s stated agenda of having — as Kushner put it in his remarks at the Saban Forum — “an open and honest dialogue with both sides” in which both parties “really trust the president.” In fact, much of Kushner’s statement appeared to contrast with Trump’s actual approach — except his notable focus on a partnership with Saudi Arabia against Iran: “A lot of countries in the Middle East want the same thing: economic progress, peace for their people. Many countries in the region see Israel as a much more likely ally than it was 20 years ago because of Iran, because of ISIS.”

In other words, Kushner’s claim that Israel must make peace with the Palestinians in order to form allies in the Arab world is more of an acknowledgment that his fellow princelings in Saudi Arabia and the UAE are ready to make at least a de facto alliance with Israel to check the power of Iran — but it would be easier for them to do so if they could somehow get the pesky Palestinian issue dealt with first. Contrary to what Kushner says, these people do not “care a lot” about the Palestinians — they see them as an irritant to be overcome. Case in point: The New York Times reports that last month, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia presented Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas with a peace plan that was extremely slanted toward Israel, with Palestinians getting limited sovereignty over noncontiguous parts of the West Bank, and most of Israel’s settlements remaining.

Influenced by Netanyahu (a Kushner family friend) and Kushner’s Saudi and Emirati pals, the Trump administration has dealt with the Palestinians mostly as its Middle Eastern allies have: by shunting them aside. Since handing the Mideast portfolio over to his son-in-law earlier this year, Trump has done nothing to convince the Palestinians that he is trustworthy; now, his next move could basically scuttle any chance of his administration being seen as an honest broker in peace talks.

Indeed, the implicit message would be that the U.S. is not there to serve as an honest broker at all, but rather to be an enforcer of Israel’s terms. This may appease a certain cohort of Israel-Palestine theorists on the right who believe the only path forward for Israel is unilateral, but stirring up conflict with inflammatory gestures that serve little practical purpose is a suspect way to make peace, if peace is indeed the goal. It’s also not a great look for Kushner, who is in special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s sights partly due to his fishy contacts with Israel.

Even more puzzling is that there is no clear constituency for this, other than Netanyahu himself, the Israeli right, and a few Israel-obsessed Jewish-American billionaires, such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. The cause of moving the U.S. embassy has some traction among evangelicals and far-right members of Congress, but this isn’t exactly a vote-winning issue. Most American Jews don’t care; most Christian Zionists will vote for the Republicans anyway. Just like the Republican tax cuts, the only Americans who benefit from the U.S moving our embassy to Jerusalem are a few hyperideological Republican donors.

Perhaps in teasing the idea before pulling the trigger, the Trump administration has generated enough red flags to make the president think twice or at least moderate whatever he’s planning to do, so as not to completely strangle the already moribund peace process. As always with Trump, we won’t know what he’s doing until he does it. Kushner’s efforts to solve the Middle East’s signature conflict, meanwhile, still appear to be going nowhere fast.

Why Is Trump Intent on Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem?