Analysis from Israel

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.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on May 22, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

3 Responses to One year later, the US embassy move has produced lasting gains

  • Jane Mountford says:

    In 1979 the Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark said he would move the Canadian embassy to Jerusalem during a federal election. He became Prime Minister, reiterated his promise and then immediately backtracked for “security reasons.” I realize Canada is a bit player in the world, but Clark’s attempt should not be forgotten. It caused an uproar at the time.

    • Evelyn Gordon says:

      Yes. I should have written that no country except the U.S. ever considered moving its embassy after 1980, when the UN Security Council passed a resolution demanding that all embassies leave Jerusalem. Until then, there were even a few countries that had their embassies in the city.

  • martin weiss says:

    the ‘moving the embassy to Jerusalem will unite the arab and muslim world against Israel in active diplomatic war” theory was prominent on the left in both the USA and Israel itself

    in Europe the theory was more of ‘it will open the gates of hell’

    the proponents of these theories were frequently experienced persons with international contacts, multiple degrees, dozens of scholarly papers published, etc.

    by and large these frauds have yet to acknowledge being wrong

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In Europe, Israel needs a bottom-up approach to diplomacy

For years, I considered Europe a lost cause from Israel’s perspective and decried the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Euro-centric focus, arguing that it should instead devote more effort to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which seemed to offer better prospects for flipping countries into the pro-Israel camp. But the past few years have proven that Europe isn’t hopeless—if Israel changes its traditional modus operandi.

This has been evident, first of all, in the alliances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed with several countries in eastern and southern Europe, resulting in these countries repeatedly blocking anti-Israel decisions at the European Union level. Previously, Israeli diplomacy had focused overwhelmingly on Western Europe. Netanyahu’s key insight was that conservative, nationalist governments seeking to preserve their own nation-states would have more instinctive sympathy for a Jewish state than the liberal universalists who dominate in Western Europe, and whose goal is to replace nation-states with an ever-closer European union.

But as several recent events show, even Western Europe isn’t a lost cause. The difference is that there, conventional high-level diplomacy won’t work. Rather, the key to change is the fact that most Europeans, like most people everywhere, don’t really care that much about Israel, the Palestinians or their unending conflict. Consequently, small groups of committed activists can exert a disproportionate influence on policy.

For years, this has worked against Israel because the anti-Israel crowd woke up to this fact very early and took full advantage of it. Take, for instance, the 2015 decision to boycott Israel adopted by Britain’s national student union. The union represents some 7 million students, but its executive council passed the decision by a vote of 19-12. Or consider the academic boycott of Israel approved in 2006 by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (which no longer exists, having merged into a larger union). The association had some 67,000 members at the time, but only 198 bothered to vote, of whom 109 voted in favor.

Yet it turns out pro-Israel activists can use the same tactics, as in last week’s approval of a resolution saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by the lower house of France’s parliament. The resolution passed 154-72, meaning that fewer than 40 percent of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies bothered to vote, even though 550 deputies were present earlier in the day to vote on the social security budget. In other words, most deputies simply didn’t care about this issue, which meant that passing the resolution required convincing only about a quarter of the house.

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