I rarely waste time trying to debunk conspiracy theories, but this particular one has become so popular among certain pro-Israel conservatives, and is so damaging to Israel, that I’m breaking my rule. The theory is that Donald Trump signed the waiver keeping the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv this month because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked him to do so. Marc Zell, head of the Republican Party’s Israel chapter, said this openly as far back as January, and repeated it last month; just this week, I heard it privately from the head of a veteran American Jewish organization.
It’s impossible to overstate how harmful to Israel this is. Israel has striven unsuccessfully for decades to get the world to accept Jerusalem as its capital, and just this year, it has finally started scoring some victories: Russia’s Foreign Ministry surprisingly announced that it considers Jerusalem Israel’s capital, while the Czech parliament passed a resolution by an overwhelming vote of 112-2 demanding that its government show “respect” for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Yet now, some of Israel’s strongest supporters are going around the world declaring that Israel’s own prime minister doesn’t want the U.S. Embassy moved to Jerusalem. In short, they’re giving the rest of the world a perfect excuse for maintaining the status quo of non-recognition: No government will be more pro-Israel than Israel’s own, so if even Netanyahu doesn’t really want Jerusalem to be treated as Israel’s capital, what foreign government would?
Wreaking such harm might be justifiable if the charge were true. Yet not only is it prima facie ludicrous, but there’s a much simpler explanation for Trump’s decision.
To understand just how ludicrous it is, contrast it with another rumor making the rounds: that Netanyahu also asked Trump to pressure him to restrain settlement construction. Whether or not that rumor is true, it’s at least plausible, because Netanyahu has many reasons for wanting such pressure. But none of those reasons applies to the embassy issue.
First, as I’ve argued before, Israel’s best option for now is to preserve the status quo in the West Bank, because neither the two-state nor the one-state solution is feasible in the foreseeable future: The Palestinians won’t make peace, yet even the most favorable estimates of the Palestinian population don’t give Israel a big enough demographic edge to comfortably annex the territory. Maintaining the status quo doesn’t preclude bolstering settlements in strategically vital areas, but it does mean not expanding them to the point that the Palestinians and the international community would deem the two-state solution dead and start demanding immediate annexation with equal rights.
In contrast, the embassy move poses no such risk. Even if you believe it would somehow constitute recognition of Israel’s rights in east Jerusalem—which it wouldn’t, assuming the embassy was in the city’s western half—the move wouldn’t alter the physical or demographic reality in any way, since Israel has already annexed east Jerusalem. Rather, it would simply acknowledge a 50-year-old status quo: united Jerusalem under Israel’s control.
Second, the European Union, which responds to settlement construction like a bull to red flags, is still Israel’s largest trading partner, accounting for about a third of its exports. Thus Israel must exercise enough restraint on settlements to avoid pushing that already hostile body over the edge into imposing real sanctions.
Moving the embassy, however, poses no such risk, because while settlement construction is an Israeli decision, the embassy location is strictly an American one. Even the EU wouldn’t punish Israel for a White House decision.
The same goes for American Jewry, assuming Netanyahu is concerned about that relationship: Though liberal American Jews blame Israel for the settlements, they would not blame Israel for the embassy move—quite aside from the fact that many American Jewish settlement opponents actually support moving the embassy.
Finally, assuming Netanyahu indeed believes that unrestricted settlement expansion isn’t in Israel’s interest right now, he needs U.S. pressure to counter pressure from members of his governing coalition who favor unrestricted expansion, since whether or not to build is ultimately an Israeli decision. But the opposite is true of the embassy move: Not only does Netanyahu face no coalition pressure on this issue, since as noted, it’s a U.S. decision beyond Israel’s control, but failure to move the embassy actually increases pressure from his right-wing base to provide compensation in the form of increased settlement construction.
In short, Netanyahu would have many reasons for wanting U.S. pressure to restrain settlement construction. But I have yet to hear any plausible reason for why he would want to foil the embassy move.
Purveyors of the conspiracy theory therefore resort to a different argument: Absent Netanyahu’s intervention, they say, it’s impossible to explain why Trump, who seriously considered announcing the embassy move in his inaugural address, backtracked so quickly. But they forget that alongside strong supporters of the move like Trump strategist Steve Bannon and Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, the idea has powerful opponents within the administration, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis—who shamefully told his Senate confirmation hearing that Israel’s capital is Tel Aviv—and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who refused to say whether the Western Wall is in Israel and bizarrely declared Tel Aviv to be the “home of Judaism.”
The administration’s internal battle over this issue, as detailed in this fascinating Haaretz report, provides a far more convincing explanation for Trump’s backtracking on the embassy than intervention by Netanyahu. After all, Trump has sided with the administration’s establishment wing on almost every issue connected to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, starting with his very decision to push for a peace deal, which the Bannon/Friedman wing correctly deems a waste of time. So why should it surprise anyone that he also accepted the establishment wing’s view that moving the embassy would undermine the peace process?
In short, this conspiracy theory has no plausible basis; it’s being used to explain something that has a much more logical explanation; and it’s undermining the very cause its purveyors seek to further—recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Thus by adopting and spreading it, some of Israel’s greatest friends are inadvertently and tragically aligning themselves with its worst enemies.