Jerusalem embassy opens amid hope for change in status quo

Jerusalem embassy opens amid hope for change in status quo
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U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman spoke glowingly at the ceremony opening the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. He is proud that the United States was the first country to recognize the state of Israel in 1948 and, 70 years later, was finally taking the next step by moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

For many Israelis, the embassy move was not the biggest news this week. On Saturday night, Israeli singer Netta Barzilai won the 2018 Eurovision song contest. She told viewers an inspiring story of struggling with her body image and recounted her long road to success — a more identifiable and proud moment for many people. And there are other things on the minds of Israelis. On May 10, the Israel air force pounded Iranian targets in Syria after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps launched 20 missiles aimed at the Golan Heights.

For a few hours, it seemed like war in Syria might escalate. But quiet returned.


I was on the Golan border two days after the airstrikes and the situation seemed calm. Cattle grazed near old minefields from the 1973 war. On a section of the border road, a single Humvee and its occupants kept a close watch, but there was no sign of the heightened tension. Two days later, in east Jerusalem during the embassy move, as tens of thousands of Palestinians protested in Gaza, there was little sign of protest among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who share the city with Israelis.

This is one of the oddities of the conflict, and one that the embassy move, for all its pomp and circumstance, will not change.

The United States should have moved its embassy to Jerusalem in 1948 after Israel’s creation. Instead, it waited. Diplomat Lucius Battle advised McGeorge Bundy, the assistant to John F. Kennedy, in 1962 that the United States should not take any action on Jerusalem. “Our objective is to keep the Jerusalem question an open one,” he wrote at the time. The United States even pressured other states not to recognize Jerusalem in the 1960s, prior to Israel’s 1967 conquest of Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza.

The longer Washington waited, the longer the Jerusalem issue became one that was difficult to settle — and one in which any decision would be marred by controversy.

When President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden administration still seizing land near border despite plans to stop building wall: report Illinois House passes bill that would mandate Asian-American history lessons in schools Overnight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he MORE decided in December to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he was following a demand by Congress, since 1995, to move the embassy. Instead, the embassy stayed in Tel Aviv amid hope for peace that would adjudicate the matter. Today, the peace “process” has lasted a quarter-century. Jerusalem has been administered by Israel for twice as long as it was by Jordan, and longer than the British Mandate for Palestine. Yet the decisions made by the British, the United Nations and Jordan still overshadow Jerusalem. Trump’s moving the embassy changed that by taking the “Jerusalem recognition-card” off the table.

But the Trump administration’s goals regarding Israel and the Palestinians are not clear. There are rumors a new push for peace is coming. It’s uncertain whether the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, Hamas in Gaza, or Israel are up for any kind of peace agreement. Foreign interests, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, would play a role in any negotiations.

Hanging over all of this is the Iranian threat, and the death toll from Gaza from protests on Monday. More than 50 Palestinian protesters were killed in clashes with Israeli troops, capping weeks of violence in Gaza in which Israeli forces injured thousands, many of them by live fire. Israel says the protesters are dangerous and connected to Hamas. But the larger problem is that Gaza has been under siege for more than a decade, and Hamas doesn’t seem ready to leave power.

This creates a difficult situation. Any peace deal would require that Gaza and the West Bank be ruled by the Palestinian Authority so that a unified Palestinian leadership could talk to Israel. With Hamas in power, that won’t happen — but there is no way to eject Hamas from power, since no one wants another Gaza conflict.

The lofty goals, therefore, of moving the embassy and talking about peace largely fall on deaf ears. It was an important and historic U.S. decision, to be sure. But, sadly, many Israelis long ago gave up hope for a real game-changing peace deal and have turned their attention to more tangible results, such as Barzilai’s victory in Eurovision.

Seth J. Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is writing a book on the region after ISIS.