Today the Congress is set to vote on House Concurrent Resolution 152, a nonbinding resolution commemorating the 40th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, commending Israel for administering the city with respect for all religious groups, and calling for the US to move its Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The resolution is expected to pass by a wide margin. The Senate is considering even tougher language, saying Jerusalem must be recognized as the undivided capital of Israel before a Palestinian state will be recognized. But because the resolutions are non-binding they will have no practical impact. In fact the White House issued a Presidential Determination late on Friday evening (thus avoiding media scrutiny) stating that the embassy would not be moved for reasons of national security.
At the center of this political dance is the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 (Public Law 104-45). It stated that it was the policy of the United States that the U.S. embassy should be moved to Jerusalem by May 31, 1999 (the date when it was believed the Oslo Peace Process would be completed). It stated that half the State Department budget used to maintain embassies worldwide would be suspended unless the move took place. The bill became law without signature in November 1995. But here we are almost twelve years later, the embassy has not moved, and the State Department budget has not been suspended. The reason is found in Section Seven of the Embassy Act, which allows the President to suspend the move for six months if it would endanger U.S. national security. This waiver authority has been invoked twice yearly ever since.
President Bush has promised to move the embassy since the 2000 campaign. Every biannual waiver statement contains the line, “my Administration remains committed to beginning the process of moving our embassy to Jerusalem.” But it is a little late in the game to make such a calculated statement, which seems to promise something but which in fact does not. Far from taking concrete steps to make the move, the administration has not even begun to “begin the process,” whatever that means. I’m sure if there were any moves in this direction the government of Israel would go to great lengths to facilitate them. How hard can the process be? The U.S. has had a consulate in Jerusalem since 1844. Why not just declare that the interim embassy until a new one can be constructed? Why not undertake feasibility studies for suggested embassy sites? Why not simply state that the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital? In short why not do something, anything to justify the president’s commitment to begin the process to make the move?
O.K., maybe it’s just empty rhetoric. The U.S. has never supported Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. For 40 years our policy has been that the final status of Jerusalem should be negotiated between the interested parties, whoever they may be. Moving the embassy there would give the appearance of partiality. Apparently the State Department thinks that the Palestinians view us as disinterested agents in their conflict with Israel, and we don’t want to endanger that perception. Of course, we also designate the elected ruling faction of the Palestinian Authority as a terrorist group, a slightly less subtle and completely justifiable concession to reality.
I understand why the government would rather leave this question ambiguous. It fears a negative reaction should we go forward with the move. One can imagine the consequences; our current sterling reputation in the Middle East would be tarnished, our historically warm relationship with the Palestinians would cool considerably. But seriously. Sometimes diplomats prefer ambiguity to certainty, especially when a degree of risk is involved. If definitive answers are likely to inflame passions, continue to muddle through until the situation changes. This is why we maintained the “One China” policy after flip-flopping on which China we recognize. We felt we had to do so to placate the People’s Republic, which will not accept a sovereign Taiwan. But we are also committed to defending Taiwan from attack. So we would go to war to protect Taiwan’s de facto independence, but are scared to death of them declaring it de jure. This type of strategic ambiguity serves the interests of stability, even as it offends our native sense of calling things like they are.
Yet ambiguity can also be harmful and destabilizing. Sometimes leaving a matter open to discussion, leaving unrealistic options on the table, only encourages a fight. If the final status of Jerusalem is contingent on an agreement of the interested parties, initiative passes to the most recalcitrant group. If Hamas senses it has veto power over the status of Jerusalem, and can influence U.S. behavior regarding it, then they will keep doing whatever gave them that power in the first place. By making principled statements about moving the embassy but not following through on them we come off as weak, and invite more violence. Our credibility is already low in the region, and events like this only demonstrate our lack of resolve. Furthermore, diplomats should think about their self interest. Once they let Iran develop nuclear weapons, where would they rather be posted — Tel Aviv, which certainly would be targeted, or Jerusalem, which certainly would not?
So we should thank the Congress for keeping up the good fight, right? No, not really. It is easy to pass non-binding feel-good resolutions of this nature. Since they are not laws they have no genuine impact, but they allow members to tell their constituents that they are standing up for Israel against the Foggy Bottom obstructionists. Similar statements passed throughout the 1990s. But if the Congress really wanted to make a point it would revisit the Jerusalem Embassy Act and put some teeth in it. Specifically, close the national security loophole in Section Seven. Defund the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, but provide ample funding for diplomatic operations in Jerusalem. Hold all aid money to the PA until its leadership recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — well, it would help if they recognized Israel in the first place. Above all, end the uncertainty. Either stop making promises our country has no intention of keeping, or have the integrity to follow through on them. Next year in Jerusalem — it has a nice ring to it.