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Trump’s big-deal decision not to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, explained

US President Donald Gives A Speech At Israel Museum (Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Candidate Donald Trump repeatedly promised to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv, where it’s currently located, to Jerusalem, where Israel’s government wants it to be. “We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem,” he promised in a March 2016 speech to AIPAC, the influential pro-Israel lobby.

Thursday, June 1, was the deadline for following through. That’s when a law designed to force the president to move the embassy would have gone into force. Yet President Trump betrayed his promise: He signed a waiver that blocks the law from going into force, keeping the US embassy in Tel Aviv.

This matters — a lot.

Moving the embassy would have signaled that Trump was aligning with the Israeli hard right — and created a major, potentially dangerous rift with the Palestinians. Keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv, by contrast, solidifies a series of Trump’s moves toward the traditional center on the Israel-Palestine conflict — showing that his administration is more interested in negotiating a two-state solution to the conflict than in pandering to the Israeli and evangelical pro-Israel right.

The White House statement on the decision more or less states this explicitly — it says the goal of the waiver is to “maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal.” It claims that the president’s “intention” is to move the embassy at a future date, but there’s no information on when or under what circumstances, suggesting that this pledge is theoretical at best:

Trump’s unique style of diplomacy is creating all sorts of headaches when it comes to America’s traditional allies, particularly in Europe. But when it comes to the extremely sensitive Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it looks like Trump is sticking with the playbook developed by previous presidents for now.

“They haven't done the legwork on figuring out the costs, necessary time and resources, follow-up, and so on,” Brent Sasley, a professor at UT Arlington who studies Israel-Palestine, tells me. “The status quo is much easier than a decision that would entail political and international costs, expenditures of resources, and so on.”

Why the embassy matters

In every US presidential election, both Republican and Democratic candidates promise to move the embassy from Tel Aviv, the internationally recognized capital of Israel, to Jerusalem, which Israel considers its true capital. That’s where Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, is located. And the US Congress has given the president an incentive to act on Israel’s wishes: The 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act strips funding for the State Department’s embassies unless the president moves the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

But the act also gives presidents a way out. It allows them to issue a waiver to preserve the State Department’s funding if they deem it to be in the “national security interests” of the United Sates. These waivers last six months, after which the president is forced to either move the embassy or issue another waiver.

All three presidents prior to Trump who had the choice — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama — issued waivers throughout their presidencies. There’s a clear reason for that, as my colleague Sarah Wildman explains: Moving the embassy would be extremely damaging to the peace process and Middle East stability more broadly.

“National security experts fear that moving the embassy would provoke violence, and not just in Jerusalem, but around the Arab world,” she writes. “Jerusalem is seen by the Palestinians as their capital as well. While Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, that move has not been recognized by the international community. An embassy move would seem to preempt a final status peace deal.”

This last point, about a peace deal, is precisely why the Israeli right wants the embassy moved so badly. They believe Jerusalem should be the eternal, undivided capital of Israel — and want a clear signal sent that the holy city will belong to them. They are less concerned about the reaction from the Palestinians and the Muslim world, which they’ve mostly written off, than they are about preventing Jerusalem from being split up in any deal.

“As the leader of the free world, and of Israel’s best friend, you have the historic opportunity to be the first leader to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital,” Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister and leader of the far-right Jewish Home party, said in a May address directed at Trump. ‏”On behalf of the Israeli people left and right, and on behalf of Jews around the world, I call on you today: ‏President Trump, please make history! Recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital!”

Trump had repeatedly promised on the campaign trail to move the embassy immediately once he took office; there were even reports in the Israeli press during the transition that he was already looking at locations in Jerusalem for a building.

Yet a mere two days after the inauguration, the Trump administration was already backtracking from its campaign promises; press secretary Sean Spicer, in his very first formal briefing, refused to commit to moving the embassy immediately. Since then, there has been very little movement on the embassy issue — suggesting to Israel watchers that Trump would likely keep the embassy in Tel Aviv. It seems they were right.

“The only people who could be surprised by this are those who live in an ideological bubble,” Sasley says.

Trump’s surprisingly mainstream Israel policy

Donald Trump Hosts Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc At White House (Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Now that the expected non-move is a reality, the core question becomes: Why did Trump betray his campaign promise?

Part of it, as Sasley notes, is that this administration has been so consumed with scandal and controversy that they simply haven’t had time to make such a major and controversial move on Israel-Palestine. “Moving the embassy without a larger plan for dealing with the conflict — for example, also establishing an embassy there for Palestine — doesn't make sense,” he explains.

But another key part of it is that Trump has, since taking office, consistently moved to the center on Israel-Palestine.

In a February joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he told Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a bit.” When Trump Israel adviser Jason Greenblatt traveled to Jerusalem in March, he reportedly asked the Netanyahu government to cease construction of settlements in certain sensitive areas, a more targeted version of the settlement freeze the Obama administration had asked for in its first months in office back in 2009. Before his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories in May, Trump reaffirmed his commitment to a negotiated deal rather than the more aggressive stance desired by those on the Israeli right.

“I want to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians," the president said in an interview with Reuters. "There is no reason there's not peace between Israel and the Palestinians — none whatsoever."

This about-face makes a kind of sense if you look at Trump’s self-conception. Trump fancies himself a master negotiator. It’s at the core of his personal brand, the thing he hammers home over and over again in his many books. He sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through that lens — a Gordian knot that, if cut, would prove he is the best negotiator.

“That’s the ultimate deal,” Trump said in a post-election interview with the Wall Street Journal. “As a deal maker, I’d like to do ... the deal that can’t be made.”

But making a two-state deal requires getting the assent of, well, two different states. The Israelis can like Trump as much as they want — but if the Palestinians won’t deal with him, then the deal is off. If Trump really wanted to get to yes, to make the most impressive deal in history, then he would need to climb down from his hardcore pro-Israel stances.

“He [doesn’t] seem to have any real policy views other than that he wants to get to a deal,” Michael Koplow, the policy director at the Israel Policy Forum, told me in a March chat. “If the overriding priority for him was going to be, ‘I’m going to get to a deal,’ that was never going to involve letting the Israeli government set its priorities and do whatever it wanted without any kind of American pushback.”

So what we’ve been seeing, in both the embassy waiver and everything else Trump has done on Israel, is Art of the Deal Trump winning out over ideologue Trump: of dealmaking pragmatism winning out over the right-wing populism that “Trumpism” has come to stand for.