The deed is done. The U.S. Embassy in Israel is now officially in Jerusalem. Other than that, the Trump administration insists, nothing has changed. But Washington has thrown a stink bomb into the party, destroying an international consensus forged over the last century on how to address the city’s status.
What Trump did was a belly flop into the swamp of a failed Middle East process, and Jerusalem, as a diplomatic conundrum and arena for Israel’s policy of “creating facts,” will never be the same.
The embassy’s new digs are temporary, awaiting construction of a purpose-built embassy. Following the post-9/11 construction style, it will present an imposing if distant “Fortress America” to all who gaze upon it or dare to venture inside.
Most of the attention has been paid to the Embassy’s celebratory ceremonial transfer to a temporary location just off the road to Bethlehem, but the real significance of the Trump Declaration is how it created new rules of the diplomatic game, both in style and in substance.
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Like everything else having to do with the region, the embassy issue is complicated. Until the Trump decision, the U.S., following an international consensus established in 1948, refused to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In the 1950s it even opposed Israel’s decision to move its foreign ministry to the city, and in 1980 Washington pressured Prime Minister Menachem Begin not to move the prime minister’s office to a new complex in East Jerusalem.
The United States embassy has always been located in Tel Aviv, on prime beachfront property sandwiched between hotels and restaurants. The U.S. also has had representative offices in Jerusalem since 1844. Consular offices are maintained in both East and West Jerusalem, a vestige of the era between 1948-1967 when Israel ruled in West Jerusalem, and Jordan in the East.
These locations are administratively separate from the embassy. The consul general is an appointee of ambassadorial rank who reports directly to the State Department in Washington. As far as he is concerned, the ambassador sitting in Tel Aviv might just as well be in the Seychelles.
When Washington was in the peacemaking business, the CG was the point of contact with the Palestinian leadership. From its modest office, the CG, rather than the ambassador, represents Washington on issues related to East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and often Gaza. Woe to the ambassador who tried, as they always did, to poach the CG’s turf. The CG has history and precedent on its side.
The ambassador was meant to stay out of Jerusalem and the conduct of all affairs Palestinian. The ambassador, even when he maintained an informal office in Jerusalem’s King David hotel, stuck with the Israelis and kept his distance from Palestinians, refraining from violations of the protocol enforced by the international consensus on Jerusalem.
The transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem breaks these rules. The U.S. ambassador, David Friedman, is Trump’s man. He is also Greater Israel’s man, a card-carrying member of the club supporting Israel’s divine right to rule Jerusalem, East and West. He has trouble calling Israel’s rule over the West Bank an “occupation.” Friedman even owns a home in the city, which as ambassador has been deemed too insecure for him to use. No matter. For now he’ll make the daily commute from the official residence along the tree-lined boulevards of Herzlya.
From Friedman’s new perch in Jerusalem, eroding the power and authority of the consul general and his mandate to represent the U.S. in its affairs with the Palestinians and to report to Washington independently will be his mission. The bureaucratic knives are already being sharpened. The current CG Donald Blome may be the last to serve with ambassadorial rank.
Friedman recently caused a kerfuffle when he was photographed accepting a picture of the Temple Mount, with a picture of the Solomon’s third temple photoshopped in the place where the Al Aqsa Mosque now stands. He was clearly blindsided by the supporters of such an incendiary move. But such are the demons unleashed when Washington adopts the Netanyahu government’s Jerusalem narrative. It can be expected that Trump’s man in Jerusalem will do everything in his power to move Washington into Greater Israel’s corner.
For a start, the ambassador now conducts all official business and symbolically important diplomatic protocol functions in Jerusalem. As with Iran, the rest of the world can fight the American tide, or get with the program.
London, for example, is already bowing before the American fait accompli.
“Our position on the status of Jerusalem is clear and long-standing,” UK Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement following the Trump administration’s announcement of the embassy move. “It should be determined in a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and Jerusalem should ultimately be the shared capital of the Israeli and Palestinian states.”
Yet even as it stayed away from the embassy’s ceremonial opening, the Foreign Office has made it clear that it will accommodate Washington’s unilateral move to Jerusalem, acknowledging that diplomats and other representatives will attend meetings at the new embassy.
For the time being, the EU refuses to drink Trump’s Jerusalem Kool-Aid. “None of the EU representatives attended the opening ceremony of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem,” explained Frederica Mogherini, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy. “These kinds of things are important in diplomacy.”
As the British decision suggests, however, the EU’s veneer of unity may well be short-lived. Hungary, Romania, and the Czech Republic have already teamed up to block an EU condemnation of the embassy move. And Friedman will no doubt instruct his team to make it difficult for the diplomatic community to boycott the new embassy.
Refusing American invitations to cocktail parties and working meetings because of the Jerusalem address will quickly grow old. Even if standing on ceremony is what diplomats do, staying outside the American tent will be seen as a quaint, quixotic attempt to ignore the new reality.
“Watch what happens on July 4th [American Independence Day],” observed Britain’s former ambassador to the United Nations Sir Jeremy Greenstock. “I suspect that the Europeans will not go to the American ambassador’s party…whether the British ambassador himself goes, I don’t know.”
Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.