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On Dec. 6, 2017, President Donald Trump officially ordered the U.S.-Israel Embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a holy city that is at the heart of a political and religious dispute between the Palestinians, with their Arab allies, and the Israelis. Trump’s move shocked not only those in the United States, but observers throughout the world as well. It was a reversal of long-established American and international position, but instead of being revolutionary, it is poised to be a disaster. To understand what the move means and why those consequences are important, below are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions concerning the issue.

What is the Current State of Affairs in Jerusalem?

Currently, Jerusalem is split into two halves: eastern and western. Western Jerusalem has been acknowledged as part of the Israeli state since 1949 when a United Nations plan essentially allowed Israel to keep some of the territory it gained during the 1948 Palestine War. In that same 1949 treaty, Eastern Jerusalem fell under the control of Jordan. However, in 1967, there was a six day war fought between Israel and an Arab coalition composed of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. In the war, Israeli forces annexed Eastern Jerusalem from Jordan and have subsequently continued to occupy the city. This claim has long since been considered illegitimate by the international community; every country except for Vanuatu, the Czech Republic, and now the United States classifies Western Jerusalem as a Palestinian territory occupied by Israel.

What Do People Think Should Happen?

The common international consensus supports a two-state solution, one in which the Palestinians would officially occupy a separate country that borders Israel. The idea was first formally proposed in a 1974 UN resolution, and since 1991 it has been negotiated in varying capacities. Both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel theoretically support the compromise, but disputes centered on border lines, refugee resettlement, military presences, and who would be in control of Jerusalem itself have prevented any progress towards a permanent two-state solution.

Why is Moving the Embassy So Important?

It is unknown exactly where in Jerusalem Trump wants to move the embassy to, but regardless of that is the implicit acknowledgment that Eastern Jerusalem is an Israeli territory. However, both the Palestinians and the Israelis desire complete control over the city, as both religions recognize it as a holy city. The State of Israel believes that Jerusalem was conquered and then constructed by King David, an important figure in the Hebrew Bible. For Muslims, Jerusalem is the site of the Farthest Mosque, the place Mohammed visited Jerusalem during his night journey, and the Palestinians regard Jerusalem as being the capital of a future Palestinian State, which is thought to encompass territories including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. And, because of these factors, for the past century the dispute over who has complete control over Jerusalem has been the most significant challenge to reaching a settlement, so much so that the eventual fate of Jerusalem was set aside as something to be settled at the end of a peace process.

Is Trump the First President to Propose Such a Move?

Formally moving the embassy first became a possibility in 1995 during the Bill Clinton administration when Congress passed a law requiring the United States to move its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. However, the law had a caveat that allows the President to postpone the move for six months if doing so would be in the interest of national security. Since then, every six months, the sitting president has signed the waiver necessary to halt the move–recognizing the volatility doing so would inspire. Every president until Trump.

What Short-Term Problems has the Move Caused?

The Palestinian National Authority which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, the governing body of the Gaza Strip, both called for days of protest, which often became violent. Palestinian protesters in Gaza and the West Bank have clashed violently, and often fatally, with Israeli troops. Dozens have died, and thousands have been injured.

How does this Change U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East?

Historically, the United States has supported Israel in its various conflicts with the Palestinians and their allies. In fact, in 2016 former President Barack Obama authorized $38 billion in military spending to aid the Israelis. But since the 1979 Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel by President Carter, the United States has tried to maintain the facade of being a middle man. U.S. delegations were the primary mediators of interactions between the two opposing sides, and they were modestly successful in their role. The problem of moving the embassy therefore is not so much which side Trump chose, but the fact that he chose a side at all. Moving the embassy is as clear of an assertion of America’s preference as possible. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas openly stated that he believed the U.S. was “no longer an honest mediator in the peace process.” And, without the political influence the United States brings to the table, it is very unlikely that the remaining countries involved in peace negotiations will ever reach a successful resolution of the conflict.

“The problem of moving the embassy therefore is not so much which side Trump chose, but the fact that he chose a side at all.” 

Furthermore, not only does this move undermine America’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it also guarantees that other Middle Eastern countries will hesitate to trust America in the future. Overall, and perhaps most importantly, Trump has essentially disqualified the United States from ever being a key mediator in other Middle Eastern conflicts.

What are the International Ramifications?

Not only does Trump’s policy endanger future diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, it also serves to further aggravate an ever growing negative attitude towards the Trump Administration by the rest of the world. In 2016, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal aiming to increase U.S. presence in Asia. In June 2017, Trump formally withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, joining only Syria and Nicaragua in abstaining from the accord. Moving the American embassy to Jerusalem is yet another move in the same pattern, driving a wedge between the U.S. and the larger international community. U.S. allies and world powers such as France, Britain, and Germany have loudly voiced their disagreements with the move. At a recent United Nations vote, 128 countries voted to condemn the move. Only nine countries supported Trump.

Additionally, the United States leaving the playing table allows other world superpowers to fill the widening power vacuum in the Middle East. Both Russia and China, two of America’s main competitors in the region, are now perfectly poised to move into roles once held by the U.S.

So, Then, Why Did Trump Do It?

The embassy move is indisputably a gift to the current Israeli government from the U.S, but what’s puzzling is why Trump chose to do it without receiving anything in turn. Unfortunately, the answer is simple: politics. Trump’s decision is primarily based on campaign promises he made during the 2016 election in order to sway Evangelical Christian voters to his side. Evangelical Christianity, while admittedly a broad term, holds that the Israelis permanently occupying Jerusalem is the first step in ushering in Armageddon and the second coming of Christ. The move worked; exit polls found that approximately 80 percent of Evangelicals voted for Trump, the largest majority out of any religious group. And at a time in which Trump’s approval rating is at a record low (36.7 percent according to FiveThirtyEight), Trump likely felt the need to solidify support among up his core supporters.

Not only is the decision an effort to please his base, Trump may have also had pressure from some of his donors, among them Sheldon Adelson, a casino-billionaire who is fervent supporter of the right wing agenda of the current Israeli political leadership. During Trump’s campaign, Adelson donated more that $35 million to Trump’s campaign, and another $5 million to his inauguration. In addition, in 2016 Adelson spent a total of $80 million to get various Republicans elected to public office.

In Conclusion…

The problems in the Middle East are not simple. No one denies this, and no one can. They are complex, and subsequently cannot be manhandled, forced, or otherwise blindly wished upon. Unfortunately, this is exactly what Trump did. In moving the embassy, Trump threw away the country’s position as a broker and its influence in the entire Middle East.

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