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Despite repeated promises on the campaign trail, the Trump administration has, for the most part, taken a cautious approach towards the question of relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Yesterday, reports circulated that the Trump administration planned to hold off on the move for the time being. That’s wise and in-line with precedent. Presidential candidates often promise to relocate the embassy if elected, but to date, nobody has.
There’s a good reason for that.
The US has long maintained that Jerusalem is a final-status issue that must be resolved by the parties in the context of negotiations. It has refrained from any decision – like moving the embassy – that could signal that the United States has, in any way, prejudged the outcome.
When asked, the Trump administration has given mixed messages on whether they plan to move the embassy and seem to be carefully weighing the decision (for a change). Enter UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who this week made two statements that go far beyond the administration’s muted posture.
First, she called for the embassy to be moved. That’s a problem. Nikki Haley is one of the Trump administration’s most senior foreign policy officials. It’s incredibly irresponsible for her to contradict the official US stance on an issue this contentious.
In the same interview, she said that it is her belief that the Western Wall is part of Israel and that she does not know what official US policy on the matter is. It is inexcusable that the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations does not know her own country’s view on the status of Jerusalem. It represents a lack of consistency that the administration must correct if they intend to further engage on these issues.
US policy is clear. The United States – like nearly every other country – does not recognize the sovereignty of any party in any part of Jerusalem (East or West). It has never recognized the Western Wall as part of the state of Israel. Nor do they recognize it as belonging to the Palestinians or any entity for that matter. As a State Department official clarified following Haley’s comments, US policy towards the Western Wall remains unchanged. Until a peace agreement is reached, Jerusalem’s status will remain in flux.
This is not a value judgment. It has nothing to do with the strong, historical Jewish ties to the site — which administrations from both parties have consistently emphasized. The US position is a recognition of the fact that Jerusalem’s status will play an important role in future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the United States could imperil the prospects for peace by pre-judging the outcome.
Haley’s comments were extremely problematic for a few reasons. The first is that, as Jerusalem expert Danny Seidemann has noted repeatedly, Jerusalem is a powder keg. Prescriptive statements by senior US officials about its status could heighten tensions on the ground and endanger Israelis and Palestinians.
Further, if the Trump administration is serious about resuming negotiations, they cannot permit high-ranking government officials to extemporaneously contradict longstanding US policy. The Trump administration already suffers from serious credibility issues. It will be very difficult for them to claim they are honest brokers if they let Ambassador Haley’s comments stand. They should exercise special caution in light of President Trump’s plans to visit the Western Wall as part of a visit to Israel that will be closely watched. Ill-conceived departures from US policy towards Jerusalem could have significant consequences.