Here’s why the idea of moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel remains controversial

The U.S. Embassy in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv.
The U.S. Embassy in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv.
(Jack Guez / AFP/Getty Images)

Shortly before Donald Trump’s inauguration last month, Jerusalem’s mayor unveiled a video tribute to the incoming president for his much-touted campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

On Tuesday, on the eve of the first White House summit between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mayor Nir Barkat emphasized his support for the move during a conference in the city.

“There’s no more important symbol than the American Embassy,’’ Barkat said.

Relocating the embassy would be cheered by many Israelis and the government. But the move would be controversial because it would anger Palestinians, risk destabilizing Arab allies of the U.S., and upend decades of American diplomatic orthodoxy that has resisted moving the embassy absent a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.


Control over Jerusalem and its holy sites in the Old City has been one of the most intractable disputes through failed rounds of Israeli-Palestinian talks, and has the potential to ignite violent clashes throughout the region.

Though Israeli officials frequently refer to the entire city as Israel’s eternal capital, Palestinians claim the eastern sections of the city that were controlled by Jordan before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War as the capital of their future state. The U.S., like the rest of the international community, has kept its embassy to Israel in Tel Aviv for decades to avoid a move that would prejudge bilateral talks.

For Palestinian leaders, moving the embassy — even if to the city’s western section — would be tantamount to a de facto recognition of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem after the 1967 war.

“This would be the end of an era, probably the end of the two-state solution, or at least the end of any role for Washington in our region,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in an interview this month with the online news service the EU Observer. “It would be a total disaster.’’

Trump, who is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu on Wednesday, recently told the Israel Hayom newspaper that he was still mulling over the idea of moving the embassy.

“I am studying the embassy [issue] and we will see what happens,” Trump told the newspaper. “It isn’t an easy decision.”

Trump apparently is squaring his approach to Israel with the foreign policies of successive administrations before him. The White House recently issued a statement saying that building new Jewish settlements in the West Bank was liable to hurt prospects for peace.

Daniel Shapiro, the ambassador to Israel under President Obama, said the Trump administration appears to be recognizing that unilateral moves would jeopardize a long-standing U.S. interest in promoting peace.

If the embassy were moved to Jerusalem, the undertaking would need to involve coordination with U.S. allies and be part of a diplomatic process with Palestinians, Shapiro said.

“If they just announce it in a speech without consultation, without appropriate planning, it wouldn’t be the smart way to do it,’’ he said.

Trump apparently cooled to the idea of moving the embassy following a meeting this month with King Abdullah II of Jordan, an ally in the U.S. fight against Islamic State extremists and other militants.

Jordan, which holds the status of a custodian of the Muslim holy sites in the Old City, warned the administration that such a move could stir up protests in Arab countries and alienate Sunni-dominated allies. It could also trigger unrest in the Palestinian territories and East Jerusalem, where allegations of Israeli attempts to assert control over Muslim holy places have sparked protests and attacks.

In Jerusalem, the U.S. Consulate annex — a fortress-like building with security guards outside — handles visas and passports and lies in an area controlled by Israel before the Arab-Israeli War. An adjacent plot of land with a hotel is also owned by the U.S. government.

“They will not move the embassy to Jerusalem. It’s too difficult to move,’’ said Mike Andrew, a Palestinian American who had taken a taxi from Ramallah in the West Bank to renew his children’s passports. “So far it’s a lot of talk.’’

Though Congress passed a law in 1995 calling for the move of the embassy, successive presidents have exercised a special waiver to delay the move every six months. Trump will have to decide in May whether to use the same waiver or allow the embassy to move.

The president’s ambassador nominee, David Friedman, supports the move. He vowed at a Republican campaign event in Jerusalem in October that Trump would fire State Department officials who opposed the move.

Friedman, a patron of West Bank settlements who owns a private residence in Jerusalem, reportedly said he would want to live and work in Jerusalem as ambassador. Friedman’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to start Thursday.

Guy Avihod, an Israeli American who said he could see the consulate’s flag from his Jerusalem home, also expressed skepticism that Trump would overturn the policy, but said it would be a symbolic gesture to Israel.

“Jerusalem is such a consensus of always being part of Israel for 3,000 years,’’ he said. “So, when our biggest ally dismisses that and says, ‘No, Tel Aviv is the capital,’ it’s dismissing Israel to the core.”

Ashraf Ajrami, a senior advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told Israeli army radio that the Palestinians would demand that the U.S. open an embassy in East Jerusalem and recognize it as the capital of a Palestinian state in response to a move. Currently, the U.S. Consulate General on the western side of the city serves as the unofficial embassy to the Palestinians.

Veteran diplomats on both sides of the divide warned against a hasty move.

“If the American government is making a decision on the core issues, this would be a terrible blow,’’ said Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “Everyone knows such a unilateral move is the end of two states.’’

Mitnick is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.