The Israeli ambassador to the United States said Tuesday evening President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem would encourage peace with the Palestinians, an argument that runs counter to warnings such an action would inflame the region.
"The reasons why the United States should move the embassy I think are pretty clear," Ron Dermer said in impassioned remarks at a Hanukkah party at the Israeli embassy in Washington, according to Politico. "The first thing, it would send a strong message against the de-legitimization of Israel and of Jerusalem.... The second reason why I think the embassy should be moved to our capital is that it would be a great step forward to peace. That's right. A great step forward to peace."
Ever since it gained full control of Jerusalem in 1967, Israel considers the city to be its “eternal and undivided capital.” The Palestinians also hope the city holy to Muslims, Jews, and Christians would be the capital of any future state of theirs. Not wanting to play favorites, it’s been a longstanding policy of the US and the rest of the international community to keep their embassies in the nearby city of Tel Aviv.
But Mr. Trump’s campaign promises to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem, his nomination of hardline Orthodox Jew David Friedman as ambassador to Israel, and his team's request that the State Department assess how to move the embassy to the holy city have upset this equilibrium, and enraged top Palestinian negotiators.
While Mr. Dermer’s speech is the most forceful comment from an Israeli official on the issue since Trump's election, other Israeli leaders – without explicit approval from the prime minister – have tried to rework government policies on the Israel-Palestinian peace process. But such actions could also be part of an emerging strategy among some Israeli politicians to be more up front in their negotiation demands, as one Israeli official involved in the early outreach to the Trump team told the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA).
“Relations with the US, the official believes, would have actually been better served – and served even better still as regards the incoming Trump administration – by a more honest and ideologically consistent policy that clearly rejected the Palestinian state option and strongly supported settlement expansion,” writes IBA’s Calev Ben-David, in article that appeared in The Jerusalem Post in November.
In Dermer’s speech at the Israeli embassy Tuesday, he said the embassy move “should have happened a long time ago.” He added that he hoped that next year when the new US ambassador lights the traditional Hanukkah candles in his embassy, he will do so in Jerusalem.
Dermer’s comments appeared more forceful than remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who, while long vowing to keep Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, seems to be waiting to see what policies Trump implements, according to the Associated Press.
Democrats in the room, several of whom still serve in the Obama administration, were furious over Dermer’s comments. They told The Jerusalem Post they questioned why Dermer was acting, while the “body [of the current US leadership] was still warm.”
The Obama administration has followed other presidential administrations in saying the city’s status must be negotiated, as the Democratic National Committee explained during the 2012 election.
“The Obama Administration has followed the same policy towards Jerusalem that previous US administrations of both parties have done since 1967,” a DNC statement said, according to the Jewish Telegraph Agency. “As the White House said several months ago, the status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
While Mitt Romney promised in his failed presidential bid that year to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, and Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush backpedaled on their own campaign promises, Trump and his administration have taken the farthest steps toward to turning that promise into a reality. Trump’s nomination of Mr. Friedman, who has questioned proposals for a two-state solution and supports Israeli building of settlements in contested territory, is a significant step in that process. But his nomination has also enraged the Palestinians’ top negotiator.
“David Friedman is a very well known extreme right wing supporter of settlers, supporter of annexation of East Jerusalem… This is a disaster,” Saeb Erekat, the veteran Palestinian official said. Mr. Erekat assailed Friedman for refusing to use the term “West Bank” and instead refer to the territories conquered by Israel in the 1967 war as “Judea and Samaria.”
The Trump administration’s actions regarding Jerusalem could also put America’s Arab allies in a tough spot. While Saudi Arabia and other Sunni monarchies have moved closer to Israel over their mutual dislike for Iran, Jerusalem’s status as Islam’s third holiest city and Muslim sympathy for the Palestinians would force Sunni powers to respond to an American relocation.
"Jerusalem is an emotional issue and one the Sunni Arabs can't really ignore," Dennis Ross, a top US peace mediator under Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, told the Associated Press.
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.