The Problem With Building a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem

6 MINS READJan 25, 2017 | 09:00 GMT
Risks of moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem
(JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Plans to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel (pictured) from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem could exacerbate a deeply rooted dispute in the region.

The media is abuzz with speculation that one of U.S. President Donald Trump's first orders of business in office will be to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Actually doing such a thing, however, is not as easy at it may appear. A relocation would not sit well with Palestinians, who also lay claim to the holy city, nor would it be welcomed by countries such as Jordan and Egypt that have struggled to juggle friendly ties with the Palestinian territories, Israel and the United States. And no matter how well-protected the embassy itself may be, stoking ethnic and religious tension by transferring the diplomatic site to Jerusalem could bring U.S. missions and citizens in the restive region directly into the line of fire.

The idea of moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel is by no means new. In fact, Congress passed a bill recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital decades ago. According to the law, the State Department is actually required to open an embassy in the city or risk losing half its budget for the acquisition, maintenance and security of its embassies worldwide. Of course, every U.S. president since the 1990s has blocked the Jerusalem Embassy Act by executive order, but in theory Trump would need only to reverse his predecessor's decree to allow the measure to become law.

Should the president choose to do that, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (assuming he is confirmed) would be obligated, legally and politically, to open an embassy in Jerusalem. Yet even if Trump decides not to rescind former President Barack Obama's executive order, the Senate has put forth a bill that would implement the act and eliminate the section granting a presidential waiver. So, Congress could forge ahead on the issue regardless of whether Trump opts to take up the cause.

An Easy Move to Make

Logistically, opening an embassy in Jerusalem would not be difficult. A newly renovated U.S. Consulate has stood in the city since 2010 — a facility that is fully compliant with the security requirements regulating U.S. diplomatic missions. (As it happens, the new consulate was actually built with the understanding that it could be quickly converted into an embassy if need be.) If the relocation is enacted, some personnel changes may be required since the consulate employs Palestinian workers, a practice Israel has repeatedly criticized. Housing arrangements would likely also have to change, considering much of the diplomatic staff's current lodging is located in areas with Palestinian majorities. Likewise, travel restrictions would be placed on some embassy employees. Nevertheless, Israeli officials would almost certainly shoulder some of this burden if it meant gaining the United States' clear recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Bigger hurdles would have to be overcome if Washington chose to build a new embassy altogether. Israel has set aside property in Jerusalem in case the United States someday seeks to erect an additional mission in the city. But the State Department has many hoops to jump through when it comes to approving, funding, planning, building and commissioning a new embassy. The red tape could drag out construction for years. With the necessary infrastructure already in place at the existing consulate, though, there would be little point from a logistical perspective in raising another building.

No matter how well-protected the embassy itself may be, stoking ethnic and religious tension by transferring the diplomatic site to Jerusalem could bring U.S. missions and citizens in the restive region directly into the line of fire.

The same is true from a security standpoint. U.S. embassies and consulates have similar characteristics and are subject to the same security requirements. They also both host a variety of officials from the State Department and other agencies, depending on the needs of the particular post. In some ways, the consulate in Jerusalem is actually easier to defend than the embassy in Tel Aviv. For instance, the consulate is spaced farther from surrounding buildings, is in a less densely populated area, and is only accessible by a single-use road. By comparison, the embassy is crammed onto a busy urban street with little buffer space.

The Value of Symbolism

By all appearances, the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem has everything it needs to become an embassy. But the building's functionality is not the problem — its symbolic meaning is. U.S. embassies, unlike consulates, host the appointed ambassadors of what is arguably the most powerful executive office in the world. And traditionally, they rest in the host country's political capital.

Therein lies the issue: A U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem would amount to a tangible representation of Congress' symbolic acknowledgment that the city belongs to Israel, a stance that has already generated controversy amid the long-standing territorial dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. It would also put several countries in the region in an uncomfortable position. Arab states such as Jordan and Egypt have worked hard to maintain cordial relationships with Israel, the Palestinian territories and the United States, despite the issues that repeatedly rise among the three.

In an effort to head off trouble, Jordanian King Abdullah II has already met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to make it clear that Amman is crafting a contingency plan in case Trump moves forward with the embassy relocation. Jordan has a large Palestinian population within its borders, which will leave the king little choice but to reject the establishment of a Jerusalem embassy or risk significant backlash from outraged citizens. But there are also limits to how outspoken Jordan can be in response to the relocation. After all, Jordan receives millions of dollars in economic and military aid from the United States, and it cannot afford to let those funds dry up.

Egypt, too, will have to find a way to balance its ties to the United States with the demands of its people. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has welcomed the Trump administration with greater warmth than the Jordanian king has, and he hopes to revive Cairo's relationship with Washington, which has cooled over the past three years. But like Jordan, Egypt will be pressured by its own population to come to the Palestinians' defense if their interests in Jerusalem are threatened.

U.S. diplomatic missions have long been targeted by groups that disagree with the policy decisions made in Washington. Steps to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel would be no exception, likely antagonizing Palestinian militant groups and sympathetic terrorist organizations in the region. But attacks against U.S. installations in Israel are fairly common and will continue regardless of where the embassy is located. (On Jan. 8, for instance, an assailant driving a vehicle killed four Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem, just blocks from the U.S. Consulate.) Nevertheless, the risk of Palestinians conducting smaller attacks against Americans in Israel — as well as in Jordan and Egypt — cannot be ruled out if the region's deeply rooted tensions are further exacerbated.

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