(CNSNews.com) – It’s not an issue that came up much during the election campaign, but President-elect Donald Trump’s pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem could have significant consequences – if he honors it.
News of his stunning election victory raised hopes among conservative politicians in Israel that Trump will do what his three predecessors refused to do, despite their earlier promises: relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel’s declared capital, in line with U.S. law passed 21 years ago.
Congratulating Trump, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said moving the embassy would “symbolize the tight connection and deep friendship between our two countries,” while Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said she looked forward to Trump fulfilling his embassy promise, “an important historic move.”
A similar sentiment came from Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who in a letter thanked Trump for being a staunch supporter of the city – “the capital of the State of Israel and the heart and soul of the Jewish people.”
“In your term as President, I am confident that you will continue to empower our city by reaffirming its sovereignty and moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.”
David Friedman, an advisor to the Trump campaign on Israeli affairs, told the Jerusalem Post Wednesday that moving the embassy “was a campaign promise and there is every intention to keep it.”
In no other country does the U.S. locate its embassy anywhere other than the capital, but Jerusalem is a special case: Israel’s claim to the city, which it says dates back some 3,000 years, to the reign of the biblical King David, is not recognized by the international community.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, want Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state – a position that enjoys strong support in the Islamic world and beyond to virtually every U.N. member-state.
There is a strong religious element to the dispute as well: Jerusalem’s Old City is home to the Temple Mount, Judaism’s most sacred site, and to the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third most revered site in Islam.
A decision to move the embassy of the world’s most powerful nation to Jerusalem would be a huge boost to Israel and please many Jews and many evangelical Christians – but infuriate the Palestinians and the Islamic world.
Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama were all reluctant to take that risk, but the non-politician, real estate magnate who will be the 45th president has proven himself to be unpredictable, so far at least.
During the GOP primary campaign, Trump received some criticism when at a Republican Jewish Coalition event last December he declined to commit to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided capital,” suggesting it wouldn’t be wise to take such a hard and fast position ahead of negotiations on the matter.
But a month later, in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network he said he was “100 percent” in favor of moving the embassy to Jerusalem.
Then in March he won applause when he told an AIPAC audience that as president, “We will move the U.S. Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”
After Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session in September, his campaign said in a readout that he had “acknowledged that Jerusalem has been the eternal capital of the Jewish People for over 3000 years, and that the United States, under a Trump administration, will finally accept the long-standing Congressional mandate to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel.”
‘National security’ waiver
The congressional mandate referred to in the Trump campaign statement is contained in a 1995 law recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and stating that “the United States Embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999.”
Should the Jerusalem embassy not be opened by May 31, 1999, it said, the State Department would be barred from spending 50 per cent of the funds allocated to buy and maintain official properties abroad during that fiscal year.
The Jerusalem Embassy Act passed with strong support – 374-37 in the House and 93-5 in the Senate – but President Clinton was unenthusiastic, warning the legislation “could hinder the peace process.” He allowed it to become law, but without his signature.
The law contains an inbuilt waiver authority allowing the president to postpone the move, in the interests of “national security,” for consecutive six-monthly periods.
The May 31, 1999 date came and went with no action, and then two weeks later Clinton issued the first “Suspension of Limitations Under the Jerusalem Embassy Act” notice.
President Bush did the same thing every six months throughout his two terms, a policy that President Obama has continued ever since.
Moving the embassy to Jerusalem has long been a feature on GOP and Democratic party election platforms. This year’s Republican platform called for the embassy to be moved to Jerusalem “in fulfillment of U.S. law,” while the Democratic one said the city “should remain the capital of Israel” but said nothing about the embassy.
The embassy move pledge has also been popular among presidential nominees from both parties, including Republicans Mitt Romney, George W. Bush and John McCain, and Democrats Bill Clinton (as early as 1992), Al Gore and John Kerry.
Obama was an exception while campaigning, although he did tell a pro-Israel gathering in 2008 that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided.” (Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas protested, and Obama backtracked.)