Support but also criticism at home after US Jerusalem embassy decision

Only a few US politicians criticised the embassy move, including Senator Dianne Feinstein who called it “a serious mistake.”
Sunday 20/05/2018
Senator Dianne Feinstein arrives for a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, on May 16.(Reuters)
Breaking ranks. Senator Dianne Feinstein arrives for a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, on May 16.(Reuters)

WASHINGTON - American politicians and Jewish-American groups widely praised the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, signalling rare political consensus over a controversial shift in foreign policy.

Only a handful of liberal US officials and Jewish organisations criticised the relocation of the American embassy from Tel Aviv and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, although the move broke with decades of US policy and was seen by many as an obstacle to an Israel-Palestine peace agreement.

Both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital, and the city is home to sacred sites for Jews and Muslims. US President Donald Trump’s decision in December to put the American embassy in Jerusalem places the US squarely on the side of Israel in the debate over the future of Jerusalem and ends a more cautious posture taken by previous US presidents as they sought to broker a peace accord.

US elected officials said little about the violence that erupted May 14, the day the US moved its embassy to temporary headquarters in a consular building in Jerusalem. Israeli forces killed at least 60 Palestinians and injured more than 2,700 during protests on the Gaza border, about 100km south of Jerusalem. The United States blocked a United Nations proposal on May 15 to investigate the killings.

Lawmakers in both US political parties welcomed the embassy move, noting that Congress had enacted a law by an overwhelming margin in 1995 calling for the embassy to be in Jerusalem.

“I applaud the Trump administration for following through on the bipartisan will of Congress to relocate the US embassy, which is a long overdue acknowledgement of Jerusalem as Israel’s seat of government,” said Republican Senator Bob Corker, who chairs the Committee on Foreign Relations.

On the Democratic side, the move drew support from members of both the Senate and the House, including many Jewish lawmakers. New York Representative Eliot Engel said in a statement that putting the US embassy in Jerusalem “does not diminish” the city’s significance to Muslims and Christians.

“It only makes sense that the United States representative should be located in Jerusalem,” said Engel, who is Jewish. He noted that the Israeli prime minister and parliament are both in Jerusalem, although they sit in West Jerusalem, which Israel has controlled since 1949. East Jerusalem, which Israel has occupied since 1967, is seen by Palestinians as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The three previous US presidents – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – sidestepped the 1995 law by signing waivers enabling the embassy to stay in Tel Aviv.

Only a few US politicians criticised the embassy move, including Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Jewish Democrat from California, who called it “a serious mistake.” The US should have resolved the question of Jerusalem’s status “in the context of broader peace negotiations where both sides benefit,” Feinstein said. “The president’s unilateral move has sparked violence and led Palestinians to believe the United States is no longer an honest broker to this conflict.”

The support for moving the embassy reflects the broad pro-Israel stance of US politicians and Jewish groups and the limited political support in Washington for Palestinians. In Congress, 30 of the 535 members are Jewish, yet only two are Muslim.

Jewish political sentiment in Washington has long been dominated by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel advocacy group that has advocated taking a hard line in peace talks with Palestinians. The committee said moving the US embassy was “a momentous day for the US-Israel relationship.”

Other Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and B’nai B’rith International, applauded the move.

The most vocal criticism among Jewish groups came from a liberal advocacy group formed 10 years ago called J Street. “The manner and timing of this move were designed to advance the agenda of right-wing political leaders in the US and Israel, rather than the interest of Americans, Israelis and Palestinians in resolving the conflict,” the group said in a statement. “In the absence of that final agreement between the parties on the city’s status, blanket recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is premature and divisive.”