An American Embassy in Jerusalem

Questions and answers on a complex topic

On Monday, May 14th, the Trump administration plans to officially open its new embassy in Jerusalem, with a major ceremony designed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence. The opening of the new embassy building follows on the president’s announcement in December of 2017 that the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and would move its embassy to the city — a decision that broke with decades of bipartisan US policy and virtually the entire international community.

To help you better understand the implications and impact of the US embassy move, we’ve prepared the Q&A below.

Q: Why is this even an issue? Isn’t Jerusalem already Israel’s capital?

A:  Jerusalem was the capital of the historic kingdom of Israel and is the holiest city of the Jewish people. The city has been central to Jewish religious and national identity for more than three millennia, while also being home and deeply religiously significant to Muslims and Christians.

United Nations Resolution 181 — the framework for ending Britain’s League of Nations Mandate in 1947 to create independent Jewish and Arab states — recognized Jerusalem as an international city belonging to no country, with special legal and political status, to be administered by the United Nations. The 1948-9 Arab-Israeli war, however, meant that UN Resolution 181 never went into effect. Instead, Israel claimed sovereignty over the western parts of Jerusalem it won in the war and established its capital there. For its part, Jordan claimed sovereignty over the parts it won east of the armistice line — also known as the “Green Line” — including the Old City and its sacred sites.

Since that time, no action or decision of the international community has superseded the 1947 resolution. The broad consensus view of the international community is that the status of Jerusalem can only be determined by the parties as a part of a resolution to the conflict.

During the June 1967 Six-Day War, Israel captured the Old City and the entire territory west of the Jordan River. It extended the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem later that month to incorporate a large swath of territory captured in the Six-Day War, almost reaching Ramallah to the north and Bethlehem to the south. In 1980, it asserted sovereignty over this area, effectively annexing it and putting it under the control of Israeli law. This annexation has not been recognized by any country other than the United States.

While in practical terms parts of Jerusalem already serve as Israel’s capital, it is not likely to be internationally recognized as such until Israel and the Palestinians reach an agreement that determines the status of the city.

Q: How has Trump’s announcement and, now, the official move of the embassy changed longstanding US policy towards Jerusalem?

A: The administration’s actions have upended decades of bipartisan policy and seemingly recognized Israel’s claim to sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Since 1967, Democratic and Republican presidents alike have maintained the official United States position that the final status of the entirety of Jerusalem is to be decided by negotiations. Subsequently, they have studiously avoided any actions that could be interpreted as prejudging their outcome. As part of that nearly 50-year-long policy, the United States — like every other country with which Israel has bilateral relations — maintained its embassy in Tel Aviv. A few countries formerly maintained embassies in Jerusalem but all are now in Tel Aviv or its suburbs.

In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act requiring the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by May of 1999, but granted the president authority to issue a waiver suspending the move for a period of six months at a time. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama signed these waivers throughout their terms on the grounds that moving the embassy would not be in the national security interests of the US.

Q: What has been the diplomatic impact of the decision so far?

A: It’s been about as disastrous as predicted. In the wake of the decision, the Palestinian Authority has made clear that they no longer view the US and the Trump administration as a legitimate or trustworthy mediator — completely undercutting the administration’s supposed efforts to launch a new peace initiative. President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have been outraged at Trump’s comments that his decision took Jerusalem “off the table” as a final status issue for negotiations, and they allege that the US no longer supports a two-state solution. The PA has broken off all high-level contact with the US, and Palestinian officials have refused to meet with Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo, or any other Trump envoys on their trips to the region. That means that even amidst a terrible crisis like the situation in Gaza, the US ability to play a leading diplomatic role has been crippled.

The international community has also overwhelmingly rejected the move. The United Nations General Assembly voted 128-9 for a resolution condemning the decision and demanding that it be rescinded, reaffirming that it is counterproductive to the pursuit of a two-state peace agreement.  A similar resolution received a vote of 14-1 in the Security Council. With the US’ veto being the sole vote against. Both votes showed how the decision shattered American credibility and isolated the US even from many of its closest allies.


Q: Does the official US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital preclude the eventual recognition of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem?

A: Technically, it’s certainly still possible that, as part of a two-state solution agreed to between the parties, the US could recognize a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. But by refusing to support the two-state solution, and by taking this decision with no prospects for an agreement in sight, the Trump administration is sending a strong message that it doesn’t care much about Palestinian claims to Jerusalem. While the president’s claims that he has taken Jerusalem “off the table” as a final status issue may not represent official policy, it signals that the US is comfortable with Israeli control over the entire city indefinitely.

Q: Where is the new US embassy actually going to be located?

A: Initially, the Trump administration stated that the construction of a new embassy in Jerusalem could take years. But in order to speed up the move and officially open the embassy in time for Israel’s 70th anniversary, they subsequently decided to convert a pre-existing diplomatic compound in the Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem. According to The New York Times, the site “lies partly in a contested zone known as No Man’s Land….[which] encompasses the area between the armistice lines drawn at the end of the 1948-49 war and was claimed by Jordan and Israel….The fortresslike compound sits partly in predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem and partly in a section of No Man’s Land between West Jerusalem and predominantly Arab East Jerusalem.”

Q: Who is supposedly attending the embassy opening?

A: In addition to Prime Minister Netanyahu and a host of Israeli officials, the White House has announced that it is sending Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, along with Senior Advisors to the President Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Ambassador David Friedman, and Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt. According to some reports, some Members of Congress may also attend.

Q: Why is the timing of the new embassy opening so potentially problematic?

A: The embassy opening was deliberately chosen for May 14th in order to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence (though Israelis themselves celebrated this anniversary in April, going by the Hebrew calendar.)

On May 15th, Palestinians annually commemorate of what they call the “Nakba” (“catastrophe”) of displacement in 1948. This year, Nakba Day is expected to be the culmination of the “March of Return” movement that has roiled Gaza over the past six weeks, encouraged by Hamas. Over the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Palestinian protesters have demonstrated near the border with Israel, with over 40 killed and hundreds injured by live Israeli fire. Some of the marchers have attempted to breach the border fence, and Hamas has threatened that Nakba Day will bring a new mass effort to cross the border. Tensions will be running extremely high, and US and Israel using the same week as an opportunity to celebrate a major change to the status quo in Jerusalem, while ignoring any Palestinian claims to the city, is a recipe for even greater unrest.

Making matters even worse, May 13th is celebrated by Jews in the city as Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) — and in recent years, that day has been marked by disturbingly aggressive marches by right-wing Jews through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. These marches have included violence and vandalism against Palestinians and hateful, racist chants directed at Arabs and Islam. This year’s marches could be more explosive than ever.