In December 2017, President Donald Trump announced that he would be moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that would break with the status quo of decades of US foreign policy in the Middle East. In May 2018, on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, President Trump kept his controversial promise.
A ceremony was held in Jerusalem to open the embassy against a backdrop of violent clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian protesters on the Israeli-Gaza border that killed dozens and injured thousands more. Notable absences at the ceremony included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice-President Mike Pence, and President Donald Trump himself who, in a pre-recorded video message that was played at the event, described the controversial relocation of the US embassy as one that was “a long time coming”. As the Trump administration and its supporters celebrated the move as a key policy accomplishment, the United States’ allies and strategic partners, including France and Turkey, were quick to criticise this sudden and dramatic shift in US foreign policy that could negatively affect the pursuit of peace in the Middle East.
Due to the turbulent history that Israel shares with its Palestinian neighbours and the strained relationship that the two states have struggled to navigate in recent decades, the world has made a concerted and deliberate effort to remain neutral by locating their embassies in Tel Aviv. But the Trump administration insisted that while relocating its embassy to Jerusalem may be breaking with the status quo that has been maintained by the world and by previous US administrations, it was a policy decision that was made with the goal of peace in mind. The administration believes that the first step in the peace process is to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or asserting “fact over fiction” as Vice-President Mike Pence put it. It is only then, they argue, that both negotiating parties can be equal and the boundaries of Jerusalem can be fairly determined. This argument may sound reasonable but upon closer consideration, it becomes clear that by moving its embassy from the neutral ground of Tel Aviv to Israel’s preferred location of Jerusalem, the US is siding with one negotiating party and is, as a result, making the peace process a more unfair one for all involved.
Also, while President Trump said in the pre-recorded message that was played at the embassy’s opening ceremony in Jerusalem, that the United States’ “greatest hope is for peace” in the Middle East, the true purpose of this controversial policy decision is yet to be determined. The initial promise of the embassy’s move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was made by Trump to his base rather than to Israel or to US allies in the Middle East and across the world. It was this base of loyal supporters including conservative right-wing Jewish and evangelical leaders that lobbied for the policy to be implemented, citing their religions’ links to Jerusalem as the key reason that the United States should abandon its neutral stance and instead side with Israel and its people. This groundswell on the right of US politics encouraged Trump to once again attempt to prove that he could make unprecedented moves that his predecessors were rightly or wrongly not compelled to make. But Trump’s relentless need to draw attention to his unique brand of leadership means that he often does not consider the potential implications of his bold but unpredictable foreign policy decisions. And a notoriously unstable region such as the Middle East may not be the best place to test such unpredictable policy decisions. The world can only hope that President Donald Trump learns this lesson as soon as possible and particularly before peace in other parts of the world is threatened simply to gain a few extra votes at home.
Meghna Srinivas is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.