Jewish activists are eager to see President Donald Trump make good on his promise to move the United States embassy to Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. But his administration has put the move on the back burner even as it has been quick to take other dramatic actions relating to trade and healthcare.
“There’s no decision,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer stated during his first press briefing on Monday. “We’re at the very early stages of that decision-making process … If it was already a decision, we wouldn’t be going through a process,” Spicer said, adding that Trump’s team “is going to continue to consult with stakeholders” regarding a possible move.
Spicer’s tone stands in clear contrast to Trump’s unambiguous promise to “move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem” and his later comments in press interviews that the relocation will take place “fairly quickly.”
Yet those who have been longing for decades to see the U.S. embassy in Israel for decades are indulging the administration’s new stance, showing that they’re willing to give Trump time and space and are open to interim measures that will reveal Trump’s endgame of ultimately moving the embassy.
“I would not characterize anything said so far as backtracking,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Advocacy Center. “I would be troubled if on an issue like this the president would not consult first with Israel’s prime minister.”
The OU is among the leading Jewish groups demanding the administration take action to move the embassy and shortly after the election the group began collecting signatures on a petition urging Trump to “act upon his pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — Israel’s capital city — soon after Mr. Trump takes office.”
Diament now made clear that the move should be done in coordination with the Israeli government. “If the Israeli prime minister thinks that doing it in a certain way or in a certain time puts Israel in a security danger, then it’s clear that we will defer to that.”
Israel could be, in fact, the reason behind the Trump administration’s decision to slam the brakes on the embassy relocation.
“I suspect that Bibi wasn’t thrilled about it because it has implications on Israel’s relations with Jordan,” said Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Jewish Policy Center, a conservative think tank. “I’ve never seen moving the embassy as a top priority for Israel.” Bryen believes that while moving the entire American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem could be a challenging project fraught with risks for Israelis fearing the future of relations with neighboring Jordan, smaller steps could be taken to maintain the symbolic impact of having the U.S. government conduct its diplomacy from Jerusalem.
Trump’s ambassador-designate to Israel, David Friedman, has already indicated he intends to live in Jerusalem, and if Friedman conducts at least part of his work from the existing American consulate in the city while reporting to the embassy, that could send the same message. Bryen believes that the hiccups in the Trump administration’s conduct regarding moving the embassy, are indicative of the lack of preparation on their behalf. “I don’t know that they’ve changed their mind,” she said, “they are just discovering it’s a lot more complicated than they had thought.”
In a detailed position paperpublished last week, Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, details steps the Trump administration can take in order to mitigate concerns rising from the embassy relocation.
Satloff suggests consulting with regional players about the move and framing it in the context of a broader American policy toward the peace process, Syria, and the battle against ISIS. “ As important as the embassy relocation may be, the Trump administration should not make the rest of its Middle East policy wait long for clarity and closure on the Jerusalem issue,” he said.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, a group that does not support a two state solution, rejects any attempts to tie the embassy move to other factors or to compromise on a partial and symbolic move.
“That would be a spineless weak response,” he said. ”It shows fear and lack of principle.” Klein may be in a better position than others to influence the Trump administration’s final approach to the issue.
On Monday he scored a meeting with Trump’s adviser Anthony Scaramucci, the first such meeting of a Trump administration official with a leader of a Jewish organization. But even the hawkish Klein is unperturbed by the emerging delays. He attributed Trump’s lack of movement on the embassy so far to the fact that “the Arab world is screaming bloody murder,” and said he still thinks it will happen.
In the meantime, he’s taking a jab at other Jewish organizations for not lobbying for the embassy’s relocation.
“I’m shocked and disappointed that almost none of the major Jewish organizations came out in support for moving the embassy,” he said, pointing to the American Jewish Committee and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
AJC’s CEO David Harris said the group believes the U.S. embassy ought to be in Jerusalem. “There is an anomaly in Israel being the only country in the world whose capital is not recognized by the international community,” Harris said in a statement. “That said, such a decision today is not without its challenges, and any American administration will need to weigh the issues carefully in choosing the appropriate time to make the move.”
AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann said the group “has long supported moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, which has been Israel’s capital since 1949” but he would not provide details on any discussions the lobby may have had with the Trump administration.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.