By moving US embassy to Jerusalem, Donald Trump is acting on long-pending law on Israel's disputed capital

In what will go down as a defining moment in the seven decade-long Israel-Palestine conflict, US president Donald Trump will be moving his country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The city has been at the heart of the Palestine Mandate that was partitioned to form a separate Jewish state in 1948. One of the holiest places in Islam and Judaism, Jerusalem holds a place of pride not only in the Zionist movement but also but also in the Palestinian liberation movement.

The unique position of the city — unparalleled in modern history — forced the United Nations to declare it international territory. But after the Six Day War in 1967, the whole of Jerusalem came under de facto Israeli control.

By choosing to shift its embassy, the US will finally be initiating a two decade-old legally-established process, which it always chose to downplay for fear of a backlash from Arab allies.

The bedrock of the US' latest foreign policy "adventure" is the Jerusalem Embassy Act, 1995, which had been in place even when the current president was a mere real estate magnate.

The Jerusalem Embassy Act, 1995

The Act that was enacted by the US Congress in October 1995, backed Washington to initiate the process to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. the de facto capital of the Jewish State.

For the uninitiated, Israel’s claim on Jerusalem has been contested by the Palestinian Authority and the city is not internationally recognised as its national capital.  Thus, every recognised nation-state has its embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city.

The process had to be completed by 31 May, 1999. However, geopolitical calculations prevented three former presidents from giving accent to the process.

File image of US president Donald Trump and Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. AP

File image of US president Donald Trump and Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. AP

Instead, every president, from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama — and even Trump on one occasion — have signed waivers under Section 7 of the Act to delay the process by six months each time. Between 1998 and 2017, there have been 37 presidential waivers, with the last one expiring a week ago.

But the repeated waivers have not discouraged presidents from issuing statements committing themselves to the eventual relocation of the embassy.

In fact, Trump’s Republican predecessor George W Bush, who began the 'Global War on Terror' and embroiled the US military in the Gulf for most of his term, always added the following line in his waivers: "My administration remains committed to beginning the process of moving our embassy to Jerusalem".

But America’s romance with Jerusalem goes a long way down in history. In the run-up to the 1976, presidential polls, the Democratic Party had said, "We recognise and support the established status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, with free access to all its holy places provided to all faiths. As a symbol of this stand, the US embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.''  This clearly showed that the issue has had bipartisan support.

US and West Asia ties

As mentioned earlier, the US had always been reluctant to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem owing to its geo-political and economic interests in the Gulf region as well as its pre-eminent role as a mediator in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The US has had to always walk the diplomatic tightrope to keep its disparate partners in good spirit.

On one hand, the US has maintained unusually close diplomatic ties with Israel since the 1960s. Backed by a strong Israel lobby in the US, Washington has been a financial goody bag for Tel Aviv. Israel has also a major strategic ally of the US in West Asia. "Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security," former US secretary of state Alexander Haig had said on Israel.

On the other hand, Washington also forged ties with the Arab world that was opposed to the existence of Israel. Wary of the Soviet Union’s influence over the oil-rich Gulf countries, the US courted the Arab countries extensively from the 1970s onward. In the next three decades, the Arab kingdoms — and Iraq during Iran-Iraq war — became major trade partners (including arms trade) for the US. The relationship is still going strong as evident by Saudi Arabia’s recent $11o billion arms deal with the US.

What has changed now?

It is said that foreign policy is often an extension of the domestic policy. Trump’s West Asia policy seems to be influenced by his domestic compulsions.

As noted in several media reports, his decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem will delight his loyal conservative votebank.

But the Iran factor too has played a huge role in Trump’s West Asia policy. A nuclear-armed Shiite Iran has always been a major point of concern for the Saudi Arabia-led Arab world, Israel, and the Trumpian US.

Anti-Iranism seems to be the creating strange bedfellows in West Asia, as several Gulf outlets have been reporting a possible thaw in ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel in the coming weeks.

While it is to be noted the Arab League condemned Trump’s latest decision as “unjustified provocation against Arabs”,  the statement may be mere rhetoric and nothing else. This is because only two of the 22 members states of the Arab League – Egypt and Jordan – have ties with Israel. Ironically, Israel fought three wars with these two countries over the Palestinian issue. The rest of the member-states have had negligible role in the conflict.

With Saudi Arabia, perceived to be the leader of the Arab countries, focussing on countering the Iran threat, Palestine may be kept on the backburner for now.

Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is just a confirmation of the ground reality. The fact of the matter is that no Arab country can start a war to snatch Jerusalem from the militarily superior Israel. However, amid the noise over the controversial move, one question will remain: What happens to Trump’s much-touted 'ultimate deal'?


Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to and hit the Subscribe button.

Updated Date: Dec 07, 2017 08:09:06 IST

Also See