Trump talk about moving U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem has Israel buzzing

The U.S. Embassy in Israel isn't much to look at it: a drab, beige building across the street from Tel Aviv's picturesque and sun-soaked beaches. But it's the diplomatic mission that has Israelis — and Palestinians — talking.

In the long-running Israel-Palestinian conflict, Jerusalem's status is among the most difficult issues

Demonstrators protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv against President Donald Trump on Jan. 21, 2017. Among their messages: don't move the embassy to Jerusalem. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. Embassy in Israel isn't much to look at it: a drab, beige building across the street from Tel Aviv's picturesque and sun-soaked beaches. But it's the diplomatic mission that has Israelis — and Palestinians — talking.

Why? Two words: Donald Trump.

The self-proclaimed "best friend of Israel" during his presidential campaign, he promised to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a decision that would extend American recognition of the Holy City as Israel's capital while angering Palestinians even before the first moving van hits the highway.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on moving the U.S. Embassy: 'I think it would be a very important, strong statement by the Trump administration.' (Ellen Krosney/CBC)

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat told CBC News that members of his staff have begun discussions with the Trump Administration to work out details of the move.

"The next step is they walk in and probably move the embassy in stages," Barkat said.

"The ambassador first. Have him have an office. And slowly, but gradually, move the embassy. I think it would be a very important, strong statement by the Trump administration."

It would also be hugely contentious.

In the long-running Israel-Palestinian conflict, the status of Jerusalem is one of the most difficult issues in the search for peace.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, says moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, would provoke extremism and violence. (Samer Shalabi/CBC)

The Holy City is the seat of the Israeli government, but there are no foreign embassies located here. Canada — like all nations with diplomatic ties to Israel — has its mission in Tel Aviv.

Israelis consider Jerusalem, including territory in the eastern part of the city captured from Jordan in the Six Day War in 1967, to be its eternal and undivided capital.

Palestinians lay claim to Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

"Therefore any [embassy] move by the U.S. would disqualify the U.S. as any kind of peace broker or partner in peace," said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"It would make [the United States] complicit in Israeli violations, and it would destroy the chances of peace and provoke extremism and violence," Ashrawi told CBC News from Ramallah, the West Bank city that is the de facto Palestinian capital.

I think it would be a huge mistake to turn the matter of the embassy into a central one.- Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman

Promising to move the U.S. embassy is nothing new.

During their campaigns, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both made the same pledge, but backed off due to security concerns when they took office.

In 1979, then Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark campaigned on a promise to move the Canadian Embassy to Jerusalem, but also never followed through when he became prime minister. 

Trump, however, seems more serious, telling a conservative Israeli newspaper, "You know, I'm not a person who breaks promises."

The U.S. Embassy in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on Jan. 20. 2017: outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama warned his successor against any 'sudden, unilateral moves,' in an apparent reference to his plan to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Palestinians have already protested Trump's plans, and there are worries of a potential uprising if the embassy transfer goes ahead. Israeli media have reported that the country's army has drawn up plans to deal with an outbreak of violence.

While the decision will be made by the U.S. president, it's Israel that would face the consequences. It could lead to international criticism of Israel and harm the country's relationship with Arab neighbours, including Jordan and Egypt.

The consequences of the move have some Israelis asking whether it's all worth it.

"We have enough challenges around us, and I think it would be a huge mistake to turn the matter of the embassy into a central one," Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said at a security forum in December.

Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York: 'Imagine if Israel is declaring that they're going to move their embassy to Toronto or Montreal because they don't respect Ottawa as the capital of Canada.' (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

With that kind of skepticism in mind, some Israeli political analysts have begun to parse the latest words from the White House, seeing an administration that may be dragging its feet on the issue.

"There's no decision" on the embassy move, said Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman on Monday. "We're at the very early stages of that decision-making process."

Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, said the Trump administration is "kind of scaling back" the embassy move.

"They're not ruling it out, but they're not going to do this as a first order of business."

Pinkas wouldn't speculate whether he thinks Trump will follow through with his campaign promise by the end of his term, but he's hopeful.

"Imagine if Israel is declaring that they're going to move their embassy to Toronto or Montreal because they don't respect Ottawa as the capital of Canada," Pinkas said in Tel Aviv. "I mean, how ridiculous will that seem?"

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

CBC News Middle East correspondent

Derek Stoffel is the Middle East correspondent for CBC News. He has covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war and covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.

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