One year later, the US embassy move has produced lasting gains
May 31, 2019
(JNS)—The first anniversary of the U.S. embassy’s move to Jerusalem sparked multiple articles in the Israeli press declaring it a failure for both U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. From the left-wing Haaretz to the centrist Times of Israel, headlines trumpeted the fact that only one minor country, Guatemala, has followed America’s lead. And even that might prove fleeting, as several candidates in next month’s Guatemalan election have pledged to return the embassy to Tel Aviv.
All this is true, but it also misses the point. And it thereby obscures the real and lasting gains of the embassy move.
To understand why, it’s worth recalling America’s own history on this issue. In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which ordered the embassy relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was approved by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both the House (374-37) and the Senate (93-5). And in every subsequent election, every presidential candidate, whether Republican or Democratic, pledged to honor this directive.
Yet despite this consensus, it still took more than 20 years for the move to happen. Successive presidents, both Republican and Democratic, proved reluctant to defy international opposition. Consequently, they exercised a provision of the law allowing the move to be postponed due to national security considerations. These presidential waivers were renewed every six months for more than two decades.
In contrast, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was never been mooted as a possibility by any other country in the world. Outside America, not a single mainstream party, whether liberal or conservative, ever considered an embassy move, much less actively supported the idea.
Expecting other countries to go from having never even thought about moving their embassies to actually doing so in the space of just 12 months was always fatuous. Indeed, I warned a year ago that “Jerusalem isn’t going to be flooded with new embassies anytime soon.” If it took America more than two decades to move its embassy despite a bipartisan consensus that was codified in legislation, it will clearly take time for countries that have only just started considering the issue to reach the point of being ready to actually make the move.
What Trump’s decision did accomplish, however, was to break the global taboo on thinking and talking about this idea. Never again will recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital be an inconceivable option. Indeed, in many countries, it has already become a hotly debated one. And the more the idea is discussed, the more realistic the possibility becomes.
A few countries have already gone beyond talk and taken preliminary steps down the path to full recognition. For instance, Australia didn’t move its embassy, but it did recognize western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year. That disappointed many Israelis, who view the entire city as Israel’s capital. But it’s a major advance from where Israel was pre-Trump, when not a single country in the world recognized any part of Jerusalem as its capital.
Similarly, Hungary opened a trade office with diplomatic status in Jerusalem this year. As the Times of Israel noted in its otherwise dismissive anniversary article, this is the first time in almost four decades that a European country has had a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem, thereby defying Security Council Resolution 478 from 1980, which urged countries “that have established diplomatic missions at Jerusalem to withdraw such missions.” Hungary thereby broke an important barrier.
In several other countries, action is actively being debated. In the Czech Republic, for instance, the president vocally supports moving the embassy while the prime minister opposes it. In Romania, the prime minister supports it but the president opposes it. Canada’s opposition Conservative Party has promised to move the embassy if elected, while the ruling Liberal Party opposes doing so. Brazil’s new president campaigned on moving the embassy, but then backtracked post-election, just as U.S. presidents did for 20 years. And the list could go on.
Finally, even in countries where no action of any sort is yet under discussion, it has at least become acceptable for politicians to say openly that Jerusalem is and should be Israel’s capital. Italian Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, for instance, said in December that Jerusalem should be recognized as Israel’s capital. A year earlier, Belgian Secretary of State Philippe de Backer (whose position is equivalent to a deputy cabinet minister) told a local Jewish paper, “There is no doubt that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.”
Trump’s decision also accomplished something else important: It permanently slayed the myth that recognizing Jerusalem would spark massive violence in the Arab world. The U.S. embassy move sparked no violence anywhere except among Palestinians, and even that was short-lived. Consequently, no country contemplating such a move in the future will be deterred by fear of a bloody reaction.
One might still wonder why Netanyahu essentially set himself up for failure by repeatedly asserting over the last year that many other countries would move their embassies in America’s wake. He surely knew how unlikely this was; he’s nothing if not a realist. So why didn’t he focus on the modest but genuine gains the move did produce rather than inflating unreasonable expectations?
The answer is that he had no choice but to set the bar unrealistically high because that was the only way to maximize the real benefits of Trump’s decision. No country will ever be more pro-Israel than Israel itself. Thus had Israel implied that it didn’t expect other countries to move their embassies, no country would even have considered doing so. And that would have strangled the important public debates the decision sparked.
By any realistic standard, the embassy move has been a resounding success. In the space of just one year, countries around the world have gone from a situation in which recognizing Jerusalem was unthinkable to one in which it is being discussed, debated and even acted upon. And as long as this trend continues, it’s only a matter of time until actual embassy moves follow.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.