“Today we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” President Donald Trump said. “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.” Trump’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital, reversing some seven decades of American policy, is arguably the most unnecessary decision of his time in office, and the clearest one to date to have consequences that will linger far past his tenure. The decision may yield some domestic political advantage for the president, but at irrational expense globally.
Apart from the short-term violence likely to ensue, understanding the depth of Trump’s mistake requires digging a bit into how diplomacy works. There are many facets (I served as a diplomat with the United States Department of State for 24 years) that can seem almost silly to outsiders but are in fact a very necessary.
Jerusalem is where Israel’s President presides, and where the Parliament, Supreme Court, and most government ministries are located. In practical terms, the capital. Unlike in nearly ever other nation, however, the United States maintains its formal embassy elsewhere, in the city of Tel Aviv. It keeps a consulate in West Jerusalem, claimed by Israel since 1948, a consular annex in East Jerusalem, the Old City annexed by Israel in 1967 and sought by many Palestinians as the future site of their own capital, and an office in the neighborhood between East and West Jerusalem, directly on the so-called Green Line, the 1949 armistice line between Israel and Jordan. Diplomats from all nations, as well as Israeli officials, understand that in formal terms an embassy is the head office located in the capital, and a consulate is a kind of branch located outside the capital. But they also know from experience in Israel which door to knock on when you need to get business done, regardless of what the nameplate reads out front.
And to an outsider that might seem like a lot of wasted effort. But diplomats
are required to represent the position of their country, and to place that at
times in front of “reality” itself. If the sign on the door in Jerusalem
says “embassy” then the reality is everyone must slam on the brakes.
Everything else may need to wait while the big picture is settled. But as long
as the sign says “consulate,” well, we can agree this business about
where the capital of Israel is located is complex, but anyway, there are some
important matters that need to be discussed…
This kind of thing is not unique to Israel. A similar system has been in place in Taiwan since 1979 and has kept the peace there.
In 1979 the United States recognized the reality of the People’s Republic of China, with Beijing as its capital, and shifted formal relations from Taiwan. Instead of an embassy in Taipei, the United States established the American Institute in Taiwan, officially not a part of the American government. An actual registered non-governmental organization, with offices in a nondescript office building in Virginia, the Institute benefits from the Department of State “ providing “a large part of funding and guidance in its operations.”
Because United States policy is there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of it, there is no ambassador at the Institute; the chief representative is called the director. People who work for what anyone else would call the Taiwan government are “authorities,” not “officials.” A whole sitcom worth of name changes and diplomatic parlor tricks keeps the enterprise in Taipei not an embassy of the United States.
But what seems childish actually allows all sides — Washington, Taipei, and Beijing — to focus on the practical, day-to-day work of relations without having to address the never-gonna-resolve-it-in-our-lifetimes geopolitical questions first. That’s why these things matter. They matter because appearance and symbols matter, in East Asia, and especially in the Middle East. That’s why Trump’s decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and potentially relocate the embassy pulls down the curtain, turns on the lights, and spray paints day-glo yellow the 500 pound gorilla in the room. It will vastly complicate nearly everything.
In the case of the United States and Jerusalem, the kabuki which has more or less maintained the status quo is the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. That law required the United States to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999, and said Congress would withhold 50 percent of the funds appropriated to the State Department for overseas building operations if the deadline wasn’t met. The Act also called for Jerusalem to be recognized as the capital.
The thing is that the Act left open a politically-expedient loophole, allowing the president to repeatedly issue a waiver of the requirements every six months if he determines that is necessary for national security. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama dutifully issued the waiver. Trump also reluctantly did it a few months ago, and then again just after announcing his recognition of Jerusalem to give the State Department some bureaucratic breathing room. Though as stated by the mayor of Jerusalem, “They just take the symbol of the consulate and switch it to the embassy symbol — two American Marines can do it in two minutes.” That would make the American Embassy the only embassy in Jerusalem. Reports say Trump will not designate an existing facility as the embassy and instead plans to build a new structure somewhere in Jerusalem, a process that will take years.
Under the Jerusalem Embassy Act, the American embassy stayed in Tel Aviv, business was done in Jerusalem as needed, and everyone with a hand in the complex politics of the Middle East could look the other way, whichever other way best fit their needs. It was an imperfect solution, not the failed plan that did not lead to formal peace between the Palestinians and Israel as Trump characterized. The shadowplay status of Jerusalem worked.
No more. Trump’s action in recognizing Jerusalem demands all of the players set aside whatever other issues they have in Israel, not the least of which is the Palestinian peace process, and now take a stand on America’s changed position.
Of immediate concern will be America’s relationship with Jordan. Jordan has thrown in heavily with the United States, allowing its territory to be used as an entry point into Syria for American aid. The United States and Jordan more broadly have a robust and multi-layered security relationship, working well together in the war on Islamic State and in the peace process. It has been a steady relationship, albeit one based on personal ties more than formal agreements.
Yet following Trump’s announcement, Jordanian King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein warned of “dangerous repercussions on the stability and security of the region.” Beyond modern geopolitics, the issue of Jerusalem runs deep in Jordan: it was Abdullah’s father, King Hussein bin Talal, who lost the city to Israel in the 1967 war, and Abdullah himself is officially the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Even as protests broke out in areas of Jordan’s capital inhabited by Palestinian refugees, American diplomats working in Amman will find every facet of the relationship colored and their skills tested — no Arab ruler can be seen being publicly pushed around, perhaps humiliated, by the United States.
A second body blow could come in America’s relationship with Egypt. Even more so than Jordan, Egypt’s rulers must act in awareness of public opinion, with memories of the Arab Spring still fresh. In response to Trump’s announcement, Egyptian parliamentarians called for a boycott of American products, including weapons. Egypt is also no stranger to the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, and one Egyptian minister warned Trump’s decision would shift focus from fighting terrorists to inflaming them; the symbolic role retaking Jerusalem places in the radical Islamic canon cannot be under estimated. All of this comes at a sensitive time: Cairo, for the first time since 1973, has reached a preliminary agreement to allow Russian military jets to use Egyptian airspace and bases.
In the coming days there will very likely be acts of violence, street protests, and announcements globally condemning Trump’s decision. But long after the tear gas clears from Cairo’s side streets or Amman’s public squares, American diplomats will find themselves hamstrung, entering negotiations on a full range of issues having to first somehow address the action taken by President Trump. This one was not an unnecessarily bombastic tweet that runs off the bottom of the page, or a crude remark likely to fade with the next news cycle: this time the president overturned an American policy of nearly seven decades’ standing which will have consequences far beyond his own tenure.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.