Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital. What could go wrong?

By J. Michael Greig and Elizabeth Oldmixon

President Trump recently recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This is consistent with U.S. policy set by the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which states that “Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel.” Even so, the law allows presidents to waive the requirement to move the U.S. Embassy in order “to protect the national security interests of the United States.” Every president since Clinton—including Trump—has issued waivers. Why? Because Jerusalem is a sacred place for Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. As such, asserting Israeli sovereignty is likely to enflame ethno-religious tensions in the region.

The Jerusalem Embassy Act set a policy goal that could not be practically implemented in the near term. For its part, Congress appropriates aid to Israel on an annual basis, and it periodically weighs in expressing messages of support.[1] This happened most recently with the unanimous (90-0) Senate passage of a resolution “Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.” That’s fine as far as it goes, but Congress does not dictate U.S. foreign policy. So, these resolutions are mostly about advertising and credit claiming. That is, they are about appealing to domestic constituencies.

What makes Trump’s announcement notable is that it sets “in motion a plan to move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to the fiercely contested Holy City,” which is a departure from U.S. policy over the last 20 plus years. Is this about a realistic pursuit of the national interest? Or, as with Congress, is the president’s decision also about domestic considerations? There is one key Republican constituency for whom U.S. policy toward Israel is highly salient—white evangelical Protestants. The majority of these Christians have a literalist interpretation of the Bible. As Rosenson, Oldmixon, and Wald observe,

This shapes their support for Israel, since biblical literalists believe that God’s commitment of a homeland to the Jewish people is an eternally valid promise. Support for Israel among evangelicals is also rooted in apocalyptic visions that became central to evangelical Protestantism in the nineteenth century; this movement perceives Jewish control of the Holy Land as a prerequisite to the dawning of the messianic era. These Christians, also known as Dispensationalists, oppose policies such as shared control of Israel and support Jewish settlements on the West Bank on biblical grounds.

Several evangelical leaders and groups were disappointed in the president’s June decision to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv, and The Wall Street Journal reports that evangelical groups lobbied hard on this issue. In fairness, support for Israel is deeply rooted in the United States. It’s practically a valence issue–right up there with apple pie, liberty, and baseball. Americans consistently express more sympathy for Israelis than Palestinians in the context of Middle East conflict, and this holds for all but the most liberal Democrats. Among Christians, however, white evangelicals are by far the most sympathetic to Israelis, and in the last decades these Christians have moved en masse to align with the Republican Party. This is reflected in Congress, where evangelical identification is nearly coterminous with Republican identification.

With this context in mind, maybe the president’s shift is an effort to throw red meat to a religious base constituency—the same base constituency currently feeling under siege over wedding cakes and alleged child molesters. If so, then this is foreign policy making at its most irresponsible.

At first glance, it might seem reasonable to say that, at least from a foreign policy perspective, Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem won’t have a tangible effect on efforts to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, because of its close relationship with Israel, the U.S. has never been a neutral third-party when it has sought to mediate between the two sides. Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem does not change any substantive facts on the ground between the two sides and the peace process among them has been effectively frozen for years. What’s to lose?

This perspective, however, misses the deeper harm that Trump’s decision brings to U.S. foreign policy and the specific U.S. role in managing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The U.S. has played a vital third-party role between the two sides precisely because it is not a neutral party. Instead, because the U.S. has historically had a strong pro-Israeli bias, it is a third-party that is well trusted by Israel. Israel can count on U.S. concerns for its interests and trust information from the U.S. during peace talks. At the same time, that same U.S. pro-Israeli bias, as long as Palestinians are convinced that the U.S. has a genuine desire to produce a durable settlement between the two sides, also gives the Palestinians confidence that Israel is likely to live up to any agreement reached between the two sides. In effect, the Palestinians can expect that the U.S. will use its close relationship with Israel as leverage to make sure that Israel follows through with an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

So, how does the U.S. decision on Jerusalem change this calculus? It does so in three ways that undermine U.S. foreign policy interests. First, by demonstrating that the U.S. is willing to abruptly change foreign policy based on narrow, short-run domestic political considerations, the U.S. undermines its position as a reliable third-party with clear, long-held policies that are transparent to the Israelis and Palestinians. From the Palestinian perspective, if the U.S. is now seen as a government that changes its policies in the region on little more than a whim, the very benefits to mediation that the U.S. pro-Israel tilt brings largely disappear. Second, this decision, which yields no clear foreign policy benefit, creates yet another circumstance where the U.S. finds itself isolated from the positions of its other major allies, an all too common occurrence under this administration. Third, in foreign affairs, the most valuable friends are not just those that will stand up for you under difficult circumstances, but those that will also tell you when you are wrong. Across both Republican and Democratic administrations, the U.S. has spoken frankly when it has disagreed with decisions made by the Israeli government. This has rarely been politically popular for presidents at home, but it is a vital part of the relationship with an important and close ally. If U.S. foreign policy toward Israel swings in such a way that the Trump administration cannot be counted to continue this history of straight talk with Israel, both the U.S. and Israel will be made worse off for it.

The decision to recognize Jerusalem and move the U.S. embassy there comes with no clear foreign policy benefits to the U.S., does little to advance the peace process, and undermines the ability of the U.S. to play a role in helping Israelis and Palestinians find a settlement to their conflict. While this decision may bring a short-run political benefit at home, the long-term foreign policy costs to this decision are likely to be much larger.

Elizabeth A. Oldmixon is professor of political science at the University of North Texas and editor-in-chief of Politics and Religion. She can be contacted via Twitter. Further information can be found on her personal website.  

J. Michael Greig is  professor of political science at the University of North Texas. He can be contacted via Twitter


[1] As Rosenson, Oldmixon, and Wald observe, “most members support Israel in a general sense.” In Congress, debate about Israel’s status is “not a stark debate between pro- and anti-Israel coalitions but rather a principled debate about which policy option was more conducive to promoting Israel’s security in both the short and long run.”


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