Trump follows predecessors in slowing Israel embassy move

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Article Summary
Overshadowed by his unorthodox campaign promises, new US President Donald Trump, in his first days in office, has followed convention elsewhere in slowing down his pledge to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

WASHINGTON — Despite his unconventional campaign, protectionist economic agenda and professed affinity for Russia, Donald Trump, since his inauguration as America’s 45th president, has followed in the path of his predecessors in some key, if less noticed, respects. Among them, his first phone calls to foreign leaders since his Jan. 20 inauguration were, as is the convention, to the leaders of America’s northern and southern neighbors, Canada and Mexico; the first foreign leader invited to visit the White House is British Prime Minister Theresa May on Jan. 27, reinforcing the US-UK special relationship. Trump has also emulated his predecessors in abruptly slowing down, at least for now, his campaign pledge to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

“We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject," White House press secretary Sean Spicer told journalists Jan. 22.

"There [are] no decisions," Spicer said at his first official White House press briefing Jan. 23. "His team is going to continue to consult with stakeholders as we get there.”

Pressed at the briefing if the US Embassy would have moved to Jerusalem at the end of Trump’s four-year term, Spicer did not budge, reiterating that consideration of any move was still in the very early stages.

By contrast, Trump, speaking at a pre-inauguration eve gala for foreign diplomats at Washington’s Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, told a reporter with Israel Hayom newspaper that he had not forgotten his promise to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

"Of course I remember what I told you about Jerusalem,” Trump was cited as saying by Israel Hayom on Jan. 19, on the eve of his inauguration. “Of course I didn't forget. And you know I'm not a person who breaks promises.”

Trump’s White House adviser and former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told Israel Hayom, "Of course we support it [the embassy move]. I think we need to do it tomorrow."

But there was no mention of a US Embassy move in a White House readout of a 30-minute call between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held Jan. 22, just four days later. Israeli officials who spoke with Reuters said the issue had barely come up.

“The president and the prime minister agreed to continue to closely consult on a range of regional issues, including addressing the threats posed by Iran,” the White House readout of the Trump-Netanyahu call said. “The president affirmed his unprecedented commitment to Israel's security and stressed that countering ISIL [the Islamic State] and other radical Islamic terrorist groups will be a priority for his administration. The president emphasized that peace between Israel and the Palestinians can only be negotiated directly between the two parties, and that the United States will work closely with Israel to make progress toward that goal. The president invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to an early February meeting at the White House.”

What happened?

“I think it's a bit premature to declare he has shifted, but it's clear he makes no haste, as some had expected,” Yigal Palmor, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, told Al-Monitor on Jan. 24. 

“Many people here [in Israel] seemed to think that he would first thing in the morning announce the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem, and one week later, it would move,” Palmor, now with the Jewish Agency but speaking in his personal capacity, said. “I think many Palestinians [also] bought into that. It explained the unusual sweat one was hearing from Palestinian officials regarding the possible implications of the move.”

But since the US Congress has already passed legislation calling for the US Embassy to move to Jerusalem, which has been waived by successive US presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, citing security considerations, Trump can, if he chooses, simply wait until the next waiver is required, which Palmor thought was in June.

“He has time,” Palmor said. “All he needs to do, if he wants to move the embassy, is wait until June. All he needs to do is enforce this legislation.”

“The other thing is, he could do something very symbolic by instructing the new ambassador to Israel to open an office in Jerusalem, maybe in the existing consulate, or maybe in a separate building,” Palmor said. “He could also move the official [US ambassador] residence from Herzliya to Jerusalem.”

In reality, “The transfer of the whole embassy, if and when this is decided, will take years, logistically, technically, administratively — it’s a huge operation,” Palmor added.

Is it possible, I asked Palmor, that Israeli officials might have asked Trump to postpone the decision? Palmor thought, theoretically, that it was.

“The first reason, if he really wants to announce the transfer of the embassy, why not do it while Netanyahu is in Washington,” Palmor said. “That gets the attention of everyone, and credit would be shared. [Such an announcement might be] more appropriate while the two leaders meet [in early February].”

“The other reason could be: Let’s not do anything hasty. Let’s do this calmly, and let’s think this through; it has implications,” Palmor said. “Let’s do it one step at a time. ... Talk to [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-]Sisi, [Jordanian] King Abdullah, the Palestinians, to prepare the ground.”

Trump held a phone call with Sisi on Jan. 23, and is due to speak with Abdullah on Jan. 25, after Abdullah meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

In addition, Palmor said, Netanyahu may have reasoned that with a friendly, new Republican president in the White House, his priority may be on trying to work with Trump to harden the US posture on Iran.

“I think that on the top of the Netanyahu agenda is Iran,” Palmor said. “If he sees an opportunity now to move on Iran, that would take the absolute priority over anything else.”

There again, it is not clear that Trump will satisfy Netanyahu’s hopes. In their confirmation hearings the past few weeks, Trump’s nominees to be secretary of defense, James Mattis; secretary of state, Rex Tillerson; and US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley (Mattis and Haley have since been confirmed), have said that while they thought the Iran nuclear deal was flawed, it was wiser for the United States to enforce the landmark arms control agreement while reviewing it rather than walk away.

“I think it is an imperfect arms control agreement. It’s not a friendship treaty,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 12. “But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”

Found in: white house, campaign, palestinians, benjamin netanyahu, barack obama, donald trump, jerusalem, us embassy

Laura Rozen is Al-Monitor's diplomatic correspondent based in Washington, DC. She has written for Yahoo! News, Politico and Foreign Policy. On Twitter: @LRozen

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