The Obama administration notified Congress late on Friday that, once again, it is not moving the United States Embassy to the state of Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Although Congress mandated that the embassy be moved to the city that is actually Israel’s capital in 1995, it included a waiver that allows the law to be flouted if the president believed America’s national security interests are at stake. Such waivers have been invoked every six months since the law’s passage and they have usually been sent out on Friday afternoons so as to limit news coverage of the decision.
But while the waivers promulgated by both the Clinton and Bush administrations always noted that the embassy might be moved at some point in the future, Obama has never even sought to sweeten this bitter pill to friends of Israel with even such a vague promise.
The question of moving the embassy is something of a chestnut for both the pro-Israel community and American politicians. Everyone knows that no American president would have the guts to acknowledge reality and, at least, recognize West Jerusalem (the part of the city that was not illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967). The Arab and Muslim world be very mad. But the sheer irrationality of America’s refusal to do so has always infuriated friends of Israel and often gave those who wished to pander to them an opportunity to grandstand.
That was exactly the purpose of the law that Obama just bypassed. It was sponsored by then Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a politician who had never previously shown much interest in Israel. In 1995 he was preparing for his futile run for the presidency the following year, so it made sense for him to pretend as if he cared about Jerusalem. But the law, which was welcomed by pro-Israel activists at the time, did nothing to move the embassy. And the ritual of the waiver, which presidents of both parties have regularly invoked, has actually dampened support for the idea since advocacy for the move is seen as transparently cynical.
In spite of all that, President Obama has infused some life into the issue. His decision to speak of Jewish neighborhoods in the city as “settlements” that must be frozen and his insistence on using the 1967 lines as the starting point for future negotiations as opposed to Bush’s frank acknowledgment that those neighborhoods and the surrounding settlement blocs will always be part of Israel, has put the status of Jerusalem back on the political front burner. The applause from the Palestinian Authority for Obama’s decision on the embassy illustrates the way his stand has encouraged Arab intransigence on the issue. While both Clinton and Bush gave us the impression that they would like to move the embassy after the signing of a theoretical peace treaty with the Palestinians, Obama’s attitude is far more negative. America’s stubborn refusal to move its embassy has always been an obstacle to peace. But under Barack Obama, it is also a symbol of his administration’s hostility to a united Jerusalem.