Tension is in the air of Jerusalem as the prospect of Donald Trump fulfilling his campaign promise to move the United States embassy to the Israeli capital moves closer to becoming a reality.
Trump spoke several times about the idea of the transfer of the embassy from its current location in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem during his campaign. Over the past year, his hesitancy on the issue has drawn some critical voices from Israeli advocates both in the public and in Congress. In early November, a major congressional hearing took place in which testimony was given by a slew of policymakers, academics, and public activists delineating the case for making the move.
Indeed, the initiative to establish America’s embassy in Jerusalem goes back a while. In 1995 Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which required the embassy to be moved to Jerusalem no later than May 1999. Since that time, four presidents, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and most recently Trump, have all issued waivers for the implementation of this directive from Congress, claiming that the executive branch has the authority to override the Legislature on all issues of foreign policy (which may actually be true from a purely legalistic perspective). Technicalities aside, what advocates of the move are demanding from Trump is simply a fulfillment of a promise, and as many have put it, the correction of a “historical injustice” of not placing an American embassy in the declared capital of an allied country.
All that said, moving the embassy to Jerusalem is not a simple issue. The symbolic significance of the city within the specified Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the broader Arab-Israeli conflict is immense. What needs to be understood is that while the status of Jerusalem is one among many big issues - Israeli military presence in the West Bank, Palestinian support of violence, the right of return for refugees, etc. - it is often the spark that ignites the wrath surrounding all the others. This has certainly been true in recent history. The Second Intifada, for instance, was triggered by the Temple Mount visit of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The past few months saw yet another example, when Jerusalem saw a wave of violence in reaction to Israel installing security checkpoints on the Temple Mount following a shooting attack at the site that claimed the lives of two policemen.
Israeli security forces have also been put on high alert for fallout resulting from the announced move. Being on the ground, this author can report of the precautions being taken by schools and other institutions in the city in preparation for a possible backlash.
In the long term, the US faces the possibility of long-term diplomatic consequences. Numerous Middle Eastern nations have urged Trump to reconsider on the embassy issue, with some including Turkey and the Palestinians, threatening to sever all ties with the United States if the decision is carried out.
Realistically speaking, no actual move will take place in the near future. Transplanting an embassy requires significant planning. Reports from some outlets have indicated that a waiver will likely be signed to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv for at least the next six months, and that an entire movement process would take several years,
However, at this stage, the announcement of the prospective move alone has laid the groundwork for things to get out of hand, both in Jerusalem and other hotbed areas in the West Bank. An additional expected announcement by the president declaring Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel may further aggravate the situation.