The Confusion over Jerusalem in the Media; the role of the Ambassador-Designate, David Friedman

  • 1.  The US Embassy in Jerusalem

Should we move the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv?  Every presidential candidate since Bill Clinton (except for Hillary Clinton this year) has claimed (s)he would do it unilaterally, unrelated to any particular peace process.  Once elected with the authority to move the Embassy, none has actually done so – not Clinton, Bush, or Obama.

No matter your political leanings, the reporting on this potential move as expressed by President-Elect Donald Trump by some media, pundits, and Palestinian Secretary-General Saeb Erekat has been nothing short of hysterical (see, for example, the NY Times December 16 column that reads more like op-ed than news reporting).  While all kinds of dire predictions are being made, a more clear-eyed assessment recognizes that the impact is likely to be less than suggested.  See, for example, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial today:  Trump’s Capital of Israel Idea:  A U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem won’t hurt the chances for peace; if you don’t have a subscription you can get a pdf version:  trumps-capital-of-israel-idea-wsj.

BTW, the official US declared policy by the Congress in the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 has been that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the US Embassy should be moved there (see below for more details).

How might the US move the Embassy to West Jerusalem – internationally undisputed territory?  The US has owned land in West Jerusalem in anticipation of building our embassy there for years – it could start building.  Or the US could simply change the name of the US Jerusalem Consulate (yes, we already have a presence in West Jerusalem – visited daily by hundreds of Palestinians to get travel visas) to the US Embassy – also in West Jerusalem.

Except for the Palestinians, Iranians, and others who would like to wipe all of Israel from the Middle East, nobody believes West Jerusalem is “in play” in any future 2-state peace settlement, even if you believe the 2-state solution is currently more of a hope and a dream than a political likelihood.  It is East Jerusalem that has always been up for negotiation.

You too can be clear-eyed about the full facts about Jerusalem,  provided by StandWithUs‘ excellent “10 Essential Facts” (also available online with pictures – here).  Learn them and use them in discussions that are likely to erupt among friends and family if Donald Trump chooses to exercise official Congressional policy and move the Embassy.

  1. Jerusalem is the capital of the modem State of Israel.  Jews are indigenous to Jerusalem and the rest of the country, having maintained a continuous, unbroken presence in the land of Israel for over 3,000 years. Since King David made the city his capital in the 10th century BCE, Jerusalem has been the geographic center of the Jewish people. For centuries it was the capital city of Jewish kingdoms, the location of Judaism’s holiest sites, and the historical focus of Jewish polilicallife. Jewish and Jerusalem’s histories are so interwoven as to constitute a single story.
  2. Jerusalem is so central to Jewish culture and civilization that memory of its destruction by imperial Rome (depicted on the Arch of Titus, which is located in Rome) and hope for sovereign restoration are included in numerous Jewish customs and holidays. The breaking of the wine glass at weddings while reciting, in Hebrew, “If I forget you, Oh Jerusalem, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth” memorializes Jerusalem’s destruction, as does the Jewish Detail from the Arch of Titus holiday Tisha B’Av – afast day of mourning. The Western Wall (aka “Wailing Wall”) is the last standing remnant of the Jewish Temple, the holiest site for Jews. “Jerusalem” appears in the Hebrew Scriptures (aka Old Testament) over 660 times.
  3. Jerusalem is also of great importance for Christianity and Islam, containing holy sites held in deep reverence by billions of people around the world. For Christians these include the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Garden Tomb, and the Garden of Gethsemane. For Muslims these include the Dome of the Rock and AI Aqsa Mosque, which is the third holiest mosque in Islam aller the mosques of al-Haram in Mecca and al-Nabawi in Medina.  Jerusalem” appears 146 times in the New Testament. In the Qu’ran, the word “Jerusalem” is not present.
  4. No Arab or Muslim power ever claimed Jerusalem as its capital. Over the centuries, Jerusalem has been ruled by various invading empires. Other than the Crusaders, the rulers made their capitals Caesarea, Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, and Constantinople, not Jerusalem.
  5. After Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, the Arab Legion of Jordan, commanded by British officers, attacked Jewish Jerusalem. After bitter fighting, the Jewish Quarter of Jerusaiem’s Old City fell on May 27 to the Arab Legion’s vastly superior arms and numbers. The Jordanians evicted all the Jews from the Old City and other neighborhoods, which were then looted by Palestinians. For the next 18 years, Jerusalem was a city divided by minefields and barbed wire.
  6. Jordan occupied the eastern sector of Jerusalem until 1967. This was the only time in over a thousand years (since the Crusader Kingdoms) that Jews were prohibited from living in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Jordanians destroyed and looted nearly 60 Jewish synagogues, some centuries old, turning many into animal stalls or latrines. The 2,500-year-old Jewish cemetery on the Mt. of Olives was vandalized, and thousands of ancient tombstones were shattered and used for building materials. Jordan built the Intercontinental Hotel on the cemetery and paved the hotel’s access road over ancient Jewish graves.
  7. During the Jordanian occupation, Christians, unlike Jews, were allowed access to their holy sites but with limits on the numbers of Christian pilgrims permitted into the Old City and Bethlehem during Christmas and Easter. Christian charities and religious institutions were prohibited from buying real estate in Jerusalem. Christian schools were subject to strict controls, including being required to teach the Qu’ran to all the students.
  8. During the 1967 Six-Day War, following unprovoked attacks by Jordan against Israel, Israel’s army liberated Jerusalem’s Old City from Jordan, finding the Jewish Quarter completely neglected and virtually destroyed. Since 1967, under Israeli control, members of all faiths have enjoyed full religious freedom and access to their holy sites in Jerusalem. There are over 50 churches and 33 mosques operating freely in Jerusalem today.
  9. Jews became a plurality of Jerusalem’s population in the early 1800s and have been a majority since 1864, a generation before the Zionist movement’s founding.  Before 1948, substantial Jewish communities lived in both eastern and western Jerusalem. In 1967 the Jewish population was 197,000, and the Palestinian Arab population was 68,000. Today, the population is about 500,000 Jews and 300,000 Palestinians.
  10. Jerusalem is Israel’s largest city at nearly 50 square miles. It has become a major cultural center with over 70 institutions teaching the arts, some 60 museums, over 30 annual festivals, an annual marathon, 26 wineries, and over 1,500 public parks and gardens. All of these are visited by some 3.5 million tourists per year.

The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995

In 1995 all of NM members of Congress (Senate – Domenici and Bingaman; House – Schiff, Skeen, and Richardson) voted for the the US Congress’ Jerusalem Embassy Act (PUBLIC LAW 104–45—NOV. 8, 1995), which passed overwhelmingly 96-5 in the Senate, and 374-7 in the House.  The bill was enacted into law without President Bill Clinton’s signature.

  1. Each sovereign nation, under international law and custom, may designate its own capital. Since 1950, the city of Jerusalem has been the capital of the State of Israel. 
  2. The city of Jerusalem is the seat of Israel’s President, Parliament, and Supreme Court, and the site of numerous government ministries and social and cultural institutions.
  3. The city of Jerusalem is the spiritual center of Judaism, and is also considered a holy city by the members of other religious faiths.
  4. From 1948–1967, Jerusalem was a divided city and Israeli citizens of all faiths as well as Jewish citizens of all states were denied access to holy sites in the area controlled by Jordan.
  5. In 1967, the city of Jerusalem was reunited during the conflict known as the Six Day War.
  6. Since 1967, Jerusalem has been a united city administered by Israel, and persons of all religious faiths have been guaranteed full access to holy sites within the city.


15.  The United States maintains its embassy in the functioning capital of every country except in the case of our democratic friend and strategic ally, the State of Israel.

16.  The United States conducts official meetings and other business in the city of Jerusalem in de facto recognition of its status as the capital of Israel.



(1) Jerusalem should remain an undivided city in which the rights of every ethnic and religious group are protected;

(2) Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel; and

(3) the United States Embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999.

While the Act instructs the Secretary of State to move the Embassy to Jerusalem in 1999, in order to avoid Presidential veto, the highly negotiated language in the act also provides the President with the ability to waive the Embassy’s move “for a period of six months if he determines and reports to Congress in advance that such suspension is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States.”  Each president has signed this waiver every six months to date.

2.  The US Ambassador-Designate to Israel, David Friedman

Some media outlets have been overstating the impact of the new US Ambassador-designate to Israel, David Friedman’s, role in policymaking and deal-making. While we don’t yet know the full extent of how Donald Trump will engage the Israelis and Palestinians, Friedman may or may not have substantive influence on what the President-elect determines to be US foreign policy toward the Palestinian conflict with Israel and hopes for a solution to the conflict.

The past ambassador from Canada to Israel tried to put a reasoned perspective on this in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on December 19. (We’ve provided a pdf of that op-ed here: why-diplomats-are-agog-at-trumps-ambassador-to-israel-wsj.)  As the former ambassador, Vivian Bercovici, appointed in 2014 by Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, notes:

At its core, criticism of Mr. Friedman reflects the erroneous notion that only professionally trained diplomats can do the job. That is simply false. Modern diplomacy—which I experienced as Canadaʼs ambassador to Israel—is an anachronistic system of entitlement and privilege aligned with the aristocratic sensibilities of the late 19th century. The “foreign service” model that prevails today was the institutional response to a surfeit of well-bred, indolent men needing something to do. So they were sent abroad to underwrite fancy parties and salons, in the name of the King, Queen or Republic.

Diplomats used to be important emissaries for their governments. Today that role is greatly diminished. Communication is instant and world leaders are overexposed…

Diplomacy still turns on the exercise of geopolitical power, as it always has, and on trade, which has changed completely in 50 years.

Mr. Friedman has been selected to represent Americaʼs democratically elected president. He will serve at the pleasure of Mr. Trump and represent the presidentʼs policies. Mr. Friedman is not anointed to go rogue and indulge in personal fantasies.

The effect of political appointments to diplomatic posts is critical. It signals to foreign governments (as well as domestic interests) that the relationship is a priority for the elected leader.

The notion that Mr. Friedman is not a viable Ambassador because he doesn’t have diplomatic experience, for example by Martin Indyk’s comments, “‘Bankruptcy law and involvement with settlements are not normally seen as an appropriate qualifications [sic] for the job,'” would then require one to look for similar complaints about many other Ambassadors (Caroline Kennedy to Japan, for example).  Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) in the Dept. of State make the case that many political ambassadorial appointees are quite capable once trained.  They even argue that having knowledge of the country to which they are going (not an issue here – Friedman clearly does have some knowledge of Israel and the Palestinian conflict) is not necessary.  To quote one:

Many FSOs are sent to countries where they have never worked, and maybe they did not even want to be posted there to begin with. Having the ability to negotiate and represent US interests and values does not necessarily require historical knowledge/experience with the host country, especially if many in the Embassy do have that. If you have a strong foreign service with qualified FSOs running the Embassy, even a just-adequate Ambassador should be able to execute the mission without huge issues.

As Aaron Blake pointed out about 3 years ago:

For decades, political allies — fundraisers, in particular — have often gotten what are known as “plum” ambassador posts. These are often sunny or touristy destinations where U.S. diplomacy is hardly a pressing issue…the last 19 ambassadors to Ireland have all been political appointees, but the last 21 ambassadors to Lebanon have all been career foreign service officers. Ireland is a desirable post; Lebanon, not so much…While political appointees comprised about 38 percent of Reagan’s and Ford’s ambassadors, they’ve been about 37 percent of Obama’s, according to AFSA [the American Foreign Service Association – which lobbies to have more Foreign Service Officers being Ambassadors]…

We are not advocating for or against Mr. Friedman, simply providing information for a more balanced view.  It may be that more sensitive Ambassadorship posts should be populated with more adept diplomats.  At the same time, as an FSO has posted:  “…former military and intelligence officers, politicians, and even successful businessmen can make great ambassadors and they don’t have to serve a day in State.”

It is up to the President-Elect and the Senate in confirmation to decide whether Mr. Friedman is the right person for this particular posting.  Israeli government officials are welcoming him;  Palestinian officials are not as happy.

Addendum (December 29, 2016)

After this entry was posted on December 21, 2016 we had the opportunity to read a Jerusalem Post interview with our upcoming Santa Fe speaker, Dennis Ross, who put a perspective on the position of Ambassador:

“Some people have reacted by saying the sky is going to fall. I’ve been in the foreign policy-making business for a long time. Ambassadors provide input, they are not decision makers.”

He said it was important in looking at the Friedman selection to “maintain some perspective on what the role of [ambassador] actually is…

“So my view of him is that I am hoping some of the things he said in the context of the campaign, were in the context of a campaign. When you are in the role that he is now going to have, he, too, is going to need to operate a little differently,” said Ross. “We’ll see.”

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