by Alison Hodgkins
Amid all the controversy over North Korea, Russia, NAFTA, and the Paris Accords, one could argue that President Trump’s continued vacillation over the location of the US mission to Israel is the sole conventional aspect of his erratic foreign policy. After all, he is hardly the first Presidential candidate to swear the mission will be moved to Jerusalem if elected, and, as of June 1, 2017, is now the fourth sitting US President to sign a waiver delaying that move for another six months. The source of this predictable, presidential tango is the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, which stipulates the US Embassy must be moved to Jerusalem before May 31, 1999, unless the executive deems a delay “necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States.” Since 1999, when the law’s provisions came into effect, Presidents Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama all exercised their discretion to delay the move, either in deference to the peace process, or out of concern the move would spark a violent backlash from the “Arab street.” From this perspective, President Trump’s decision to defer fulfillment of this particular campaign pledge is not only conventional, but an indication of his commitment to put the safety of America and Americans first.
The problem with this assessment however, is that it understates the national security implications of this particular policy. Relocating the Embassy to Jerusalem will do more than incite anger on the “Arab street,” or hamper efforts to restart peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, it will undercut every national security objective the Trump administration has set out for the region. Carrying out this move before Jerusalem’s status has been resolved at the negotiating table will hamper the Trump administration’s ability to defeat ISIL, contain Iran’s regional ambitions, or even stem the tide of refugees flowing out of the region. Fulfilling this promise, even if enshrined in US domestic law, is also at odds with his determination to restore US clout, and repair relations with traditional US allies he has long charged the Obama administration with alienating. More importantly, while the costs of continuing to double down on this pledge are manifold, there are few discernible gains for his administration—even in terms of the US relationship with Israel.
In the mainstream policy discourse, deferring action on the provisions of the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act have typically been justified on preserving the possibility of making headway on the US-mediated peace process, or out of fear outrage in the Arab street would escalate into violence against Americans or American interests at home and abroad. In this respect, the Trump administrations official explanation for signing the waiver—that he made the “decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, [and] fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America’s national security interest,” is par for the course. It is also a fairly accurate appraisal of the consequences were President Trump to carry out this move in the current regional environment. First, relocating the US embassy to Jerusalem in advance of a negotiated settlement would provoke outrage in the “Arab street.” There would likely be riots across the region, and violence against American citizens or property cannot be ruled out. It is also highly unlikely President Trump would be able to gain any traction towards “the ultimate deal” should he carry out this campaign promise.
However, the problem with these surface-level assessments is that they overstate the dangers of “Arab outrage” or further stagnation in the peace process, while overlooking the more far-reaching national security implications of relocating the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and recognizing Israel’s claim to the city in the process. For example, US Presidents have a long history of carrying through with policies objectionable to the sensitivities of the “Arab street.” The US-led effort to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait sparked fierce riots across the region, as did the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is also almost certain various militant groups—Islamist or otherwise—would seize on a change in the Embassy’s location to enhance their anti-American screeds and augment their recruitment tools with references to US collusion with Israel to sell out the third holiest site for the Islamic faith. However, not only do these groups have ample material already, the casual connection between specific US actions and incidents of terrorism is tenuous at best. Moreover, with the peace process in such a state of disrepair it is arguably no longer even on life support, there seems little to lose in going ahead with the move, unless one considers the steep costs it would exact on the Trump administration’s ability to maintain the relationships and leverage necessary to fight terrorism in the region, and to fulfill his commitment to share the burden of this fight with allies in the region.
For example, President Trump has been unequivocal over his willingness to use force to defeat ISIL or counter other threats to US national security. However, he has been equally adamant that his administration will not expend US blood or treasure in costly nation-building projects, or commit US forces to any further open-ended force-sapping engagements abroad. Instead, he expects US allies to do more to shoulder their share of the burden. Translating these promises into policy would mean strengthening existing mechanisms for security cooperation in the region, foremost of which is the International Coalition against the Islamic State. Although this 73 member coalition began under the Obama administration, President Trump has made repeated references to coalition military operations as part of his plan for eradicating ISIL and other “radical, Islamic terror groups.” This is not surprising given the relative success of the coalition in pushing ISIL out of 62% of the territory it held in early 2014, as well as the elimination of some 180 individuals in the organizations leadership cadres.
Saudi-Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan are key members of this coalition, which also includes Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Iraq. While the contribution of these states vary, Jordan and the UAE have both been active in flying sorties over ISIL territory in Iraq and Syria. Jordan, in particular, accelerated its participation after the immolation of its downed fighter pilot, Lt. Muath Kasassabeh, in ISIL-held Raqqa early January 2015. In addition, to their contribution to the campaign against ISIL, these states also factor heavily in the Trump administration’s plans to counter Iran’s growing influence in the region. Again, in contrast to the Obama administration, President Trump has opposed engagement with Iran on the grounds its sponsorship of terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as its interference in the destabilization of states like Yemen, present a significant national security threat even if its nuclear program is currently on pause. However, consistent with his strategy of shifting the costs of such an aggressive policy to US allies, he went on record during his May 2017 visit to Saudi Arabia as backing the formation of a regional security alliance, akin to a Sunni-Arab NATO, to deter Iran and keep its regional influences in check.
While reasonable people can disagree on the merits of these policies, it is difficult to see how any of them are advanced by the continued controversy over the Embassy move. Consider the implications of this move for a staunch US ally like the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, whose Monarch, King Abdallah II President Trump has praised. In addition to the Kingdom’s contribution to the coalition, Jordan also has one of the best Special Forces in the region, and is a key source of human intelligence in the fight against ISIL. Jordan also regularly hosts and participates in joint military exercises with the US, and has provided training for the Iraqi military, Palestinian police, and the US backed Syrian rebels. King Abdallah II has also been a consistent voice for peace, and has been aggressive in using his status as a descendant of the Prophet Mohamed to refute violent and extremist interpretations of Islam. For example, in 2004 he issued the “Amman Message,” a point by point take-down of some of the central claims peddled by extremists like Bin Laden, Zawahiri, or al-Zarqwi. Recently, he has been castigating the Islamic State and their ilk as “Khwariji— or outlaws.” Beyond supporting the fight against the ISIL, the Kingdom is also hosting anywhere from 650,000 to 1 million Syrian refugees, which is the equivalent of the United States taking in the populations of California and Texas combined. However, Jordan—or more specifically the Hashemite royal family, is also the recognized custodian of Jerusalem’s holy sites, and went on record days after President Trump’s inauguration to declare any attempt to relocate the US mission to Israel a “red-line.”
Jerusalem has symbolic significance across the Arab and Islamic world, both due to its religious significance and its connection to the Palestinian cause. However, the city has always been of particular importance to the Hashemite royal family, due to their historic custodial role, the loss of the eastern part of the city in 1967, and because of its linkage to the terms of its 1994 peace agreement with Israel, which not only acknowledges Jordan’s special role in the city in Article 9.2 of the treaty, but obliges Israel to give the role high priority in any negotiations on the city’s final status. Although this clause was initially a source of friction between Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, since the collapse of the peace process, the Kingdom has taken a lead in countering Israeli actions in the city deemed as threatening to the religious or political status quo. In 2013, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas signed an agreement with King Abdallah II, which not only confirmed Jordan’s role as “protector of Jerusalem’s Holy sites,” but as the defender of Palestinian sovereignty over all of Palestine. From this perspective, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem is tantamount to a formal repudiation of this role, and an attempt to prejudice the outcome of the final status talks. Not only would this be a personal affront to King Abdallah II, it would make it virtually impossible for the government to continue to justify upholding the terms of their 1994 peace agreement.
There are many who argue Jordan is far too dependent on US financial and military support to risk a rupture over the peace treaty. However, when King Abdallah II’s father, the late King Hussein, was faced with unified opposition to any involvement in the US-led coalition to liberate Kuwait, Jordan broke ranks with its super-power benefactor, even though the breach brought the Kingdom to the brink of collapse. It is true that Jordan also went to great lengths to repair that breach, including cooperating on the US-sponsored Madrid conference and making peace with Israel in 1994, but that was when the United States was the sole world power and all Arab states, including Syria, were aligning their policies with the US agenda. As President Trump is wont to point out, the US no longer wields such singular influence in the region. While he is correct in identifying the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Iran, as well as its failure to support longtime US ally Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during the Arab spring, as precipitating the decline, there is little question his stance on Jerusalem, Israeli settlement expansion, and his artful dodging on the subject of a two-state solution is accelerating this shift. It is not by accident that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Jordan to discuss bilateral coordination on regional developments one week after Trump’s handpicked envoy to Israel, David Friedman, made references to Israel’s “alleged occupation” of Palestinian territories, and stated moving the Embassy to Jerusalem was no longer a matter of if, but when.
Of course, the government of Israel, and many of Israel’s supporters in the United States would take issue with Jordan’s position on Jerusalem, and put forward a list of reasons why its claim to sovereignty over the city supersedes that of Jordan or the Palestinian authority. Because of the city’s religious, social, and political symbolism to all the parties to the conflict, any discussion of the city’s status is fraught. However, from the perspective of President Trump’s stated policy objectives, it is unclear why he would risk alienating a key regional partner like Jordan unless the move would yield commensurate, if not superior, gains for his administration. While President Trump is not alone in taking Israel’s strategic value to the United States as axiomatic, it is unclear how going ahead with the Embassy move at this time would enhance the special relationship the US and Israel already enjoy. The US and Israel already engage in extensive security cooperation, share intelligence, and are invested in the co-development of military technology, especially around cyber security.
On the regional front, President Trump is already in alignment with the Israeli Prime Minister’s position on Iran, as well as the peace process. Yet even on this point, there is little reason to conclude moving the Embassy would encourage Israel to be more flexible on any other aspect of the “ultimate deal” President Trump hopes to negotiate. In fact, it is arguable that going ahead with the move would make those efforts even harder. Precisely because relocating the Embassy would be interpreted as an acknowledgement of Israeli claims to all of Jerusalem, such a move could embolden those hard-right members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, such as Education Minister Naftali Bennet, or Justice Minister Aylet Shaked, who are pushing for Israel to take steps to unilaterally annex the West Bank. This is perhaps why Mr. Netanyahu’s overall response to President Trump’s insistence on carrying out the change has been lukewarm at best. One could argue that President Trump has been so insistent on carrying out the move that he must do so in order to save face with his constituents, including those who are staunch supports of Israel. Perhaps, however, the price would be alienating regional allies, damaging his national security agenda, and sacrificing a valuable bargaining chip for nothing more than status quo in the US-Israeli relationship. It is unclear why someone who stakes his reputation on his negotiating acumen would propose such a lose-lose deal.
She has extensive teaching experience in the field of international relations and has taught courses at the University of Jordan, Bentley College and Northeastern University. In addition, she has given training courses in negotiations for Jordanian diplomats at the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy. In addition to her PhD, which was awarded in 2010, she holds an MPA in public affairs (Lyndon Baines Johnson School), an MA in Middle Eastern studies (University of Texas at Austin), and a BA in political science (Bates College).