Why Trump won’t move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem

The city is a tinderbox, and no one wants to set off a fatal spark.

Palestinian youth hold a Palestinian flag outside the Aqsa Mosque in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound, East Jerusalem. (Photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Palestinian youth hold a Palestinian flag outside the Aqsa Mosque in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound, East Jerusalem. (Photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

A prominent Israeli journalist tweeted on Wednesday that Netanyahu’s government expects the United States to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital “perhaps as early as Sunday.” Dana Weiss, the chief political analyst for Channel 2 News and the anchor of her own prime time weekly television magazine program, also wrote that her sources had told her the U.S. would announce plans to move its embassy to Jerusalem. According to the information she shared, the impetus for this move came on the back of pressure from Trump’s Christian evangelist supporters.

At least one of her colleagues referred to her tweet as a “scoop.” But a few hours, a bit of a social media tempest later, and a denial from the White House, it’s pretty clear that this incident is really about political machinations and dealings between the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

East Jerusalem’s walled Old City is home to the sites holiest to all three monotheistic religions. These include Al Aqsa, the third holiest site in Islam; and the Kotel, or Western Wall (a retaining wall of the ancient temple), which practicing Jews view as their holiest site. Both sites hold cultural and political significance even for non-believers.

Jerusalem is a tinderbox — as demonstrated by the events of last summer. In July, Netanyahu briefly acceded to the Jerusalem police chief’s insistence that metal detectors controlled by Israeli security —  in other words a checkpoint — should be set up at the entrance to the compound, known as The Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif) on which Al Aqsa sits. Palestinians, for whom the compound is the only place in Israeli-controlled territory where they can gather freely, responded with days of sustained protests, which Israeli security forces dispersed quite brutally. For Palestinians, the metal detectors were an attempt by Israel to take control of Al Aqsa, which is presided over by the Waqf — Muslim religious authorities funded by the King of Jordan, in an arrangement that predates the 1967 war.

Netanyahu finally backed down and ordered the metal detectors removed after even the Arab League, which has for years been offering Israel full normalization in exchange for a two-state solution of the Palestinian issue, remonstrated.

Successive Israeli governments have dreamed of achieving normalization with the Arab states without having to make any concessions on the Palestinian issue. This is particularly true of Netanyahu and his far-right political supporters, who are extremely averse to territorial compromises in the West Bank. Lately, Netanyahu has hinted, with his customary smugness, that he’s getting closer to that goal.

For the past three years Israel and the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, have been quietly normalizing at the elite levels of government and commerce. The reason: mutual fear and loathing of Iran and its expanding regional influence. The overt-but-quiet thaw in relations is seen in several public meetings between high ranking Israeli and Saudi officials at prestigious international conferences and think tank panels.

Earlier this month, Gadi Eisenkot, the Israeli army’s chief of staff, gave what Haaretz described as an unprecedented interview to the London-based Arabic language news portal Elaph, which is owned by a Saudi businessman. According to the report, Eisenkot told his Elaph interviewer that Israel would share its intelligence on Iran with its counterparts in Saudi Arabia.

Donald Trump once said he would “rip up” the multilateral Iran nuclear deal, though he has recently moderated his position. Nonetheless, he is being courted by Saudi Arabia — even as the crown prince, Mohamed Bin Salman, consolidates his power by having his rival family members arrested and detained at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh.  Saudi authorities apparently also forced Lebanese prime minister and Saudi citizen Saad Hariri to announce his resignation during a visit to Riyadh earlier this month. One need not have more than a superficial knowledge of the region to understand there is some political and diplomatic maneuvering going on (for a deeper understanding of the upheaval in Saudi Arabia and its regional implications this month, this podcast analysis by Iyad El-Baghdadi is excellent).

Every presidential candidate, including Jimmy Carter, told Jewish voters he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. All of them reneged once elected. Perhaps some of them knew, even as they made the promise, that it was an empty one. Almost no state in the world recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as long as the Palestinian issue remains unresolved. The Palestinians regard East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1980 in a move that the international community rejected wholesale, as the capital of their future state. This is why nearly all the foreign embassies are in Tel Aviv.

Trump has twice claimed he would be the one to move the embassy to Jerusalem, which would constitute de facto recognition of Israel’s 1980 annexation, but it remains extremely unlikely that he will ever do so. As all the living former directors of the Shin Bet told Dror Moreh, director of the critically acclaimed documentary film “The Gatekeepers,” any attempt to upset the status quo in Jerusalem would likely be the spark that sets off World War Three.

And it’s worth remembering the bit in Dana Weiss’s tweets that refers to pressure from Trump’s Christian evangelist supporters (this claim may or may not be true); according to their eschatological beliefs, the Second Coming of the messiah will only occur after an apocalypse — like, for example, a third world war set off when millions of Muslims enraged over the desecration of their holy site take to the streets to demand their leaders take action.

Saudi Arabia is cozying up to the Israeli government right now for reasons that are purely about shared interests; but there is absolutely no chance of full normalization. The Arab Middle East is bitterly divided over the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, over the Sunni-Shiite rivalry, and over the post-revolutionary leadership in Egypt; but Palestine, though no longer the animating issue it once was, still evokes deep shared emotions.

Arab popular opinion might grudgingly accept elite-level, unofficial relations between their leaders and Israel, but it would not remain quiet about normalization without resolution of the Palestinian issue. The authoritarian leaders of the Gulf countries know this; they have no interest in risking the stability of their regimes, which is why they will never enter into formal diplomatic relations with Israel.

Netanyahu knows there is not going to be an Israeli embassy in Riyadh any time soon. But it suits his purposes to pretend otherwise. Like Trump, Netanyahu derives a significant part of his power from a reactionary, hyper-nationalist base that holds him and his party in cult-like, reverential esteem. It’s classic Netanyahu tactics to pretend he wants the embassy moved to Jerusalem, even though he would surely be the first to call Trump and tell him it was a bad idea if he thought the U.S. president were actually going to go ahead with the move. It’s all about playing to the base. Similarly, if Netanyahu can convince his supporters that he has won the friendship of the Arab leaders while holding on to Jerusalem and without making any concession on the West Bank settlements, that impression will only add to their conviction that, as his election campaign slogan went, “Only Bibi can.”