Sydney Abel is a senior politics major.
What would it mean if the American embassy in Israel were to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? Why was there such a backlash when Trump threatened to make this very move? What even is the difference between a consulate and an embassy to begin with?
Number one: An embassy and a consulate are two different things. At an embassy, it’s as if you are on the soil of the embassy’s nation. For example, at the American embassy of Israel, you are compelled to follow the rules of the United States, not Israel. Embassies are typically located in the capital of a country and are where you can receive passports and seek asylum (thanks, Snowden). A consulate, on the other hand, is smaller and similar to a customer service center for citizens of that nation. It typically doesn’t matter where consulates are located within a host country.
Currently, the American embassy of Israel is located in Tel Aviv and an American consulate is located in Jerusalem. Tel Aviv is a two-hour drive from Jerusalem and the American ambassador already does much of his work at the consulate in Jerusalem. Even though these two cities are geographically and professionally close, switching their roles in American foreign policy would have far reaching consequences for America’s relations in the Middle East.
If the American embassy were to be moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, this would mean the United States officially recognizes Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel. Why does this matter? If you are not well-versed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I’ll keep it simple by saying this: much of the conflict lies in who owns Jerusalem.
Much like East and West Berlin in the 20th century, East Jerusalem has been claimed by Palestine and the West belongs to Israel. To add another layer of complexity, the United States does not recognize Palestine as a sovereign nation. An embassy is incredibly important in legitimizing land rights, and moving the American embassy to Jerusalem would send a message to Palestine that their land rights are invalid. The consequence of this would reach far further than just Israel and Palestine. It could affect the security of Israel, as well as the stability of the Middle East as a whole. Moving the American embassy to Jerusalem is not something to take lightly.
Yet based on his recent flippant comments, it seems Trump is taking lightly the momentous decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. Moving the embassy would be an utter disaster and could potentially start another war in the Middle East. Suicide bombings and terror attacks against the state of Israel could be a very possible retaliation to the move. And even further, because Israel is supported by the U.S., it’s not too outlandish to imagine that the U.S. would have to deploy even more soldiers to fight in a drawn-out war.
If Trump is really planning on moving the embassy, he would be breaking with over 20 years of precedent. During the Clinton administration, Congress voted to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. President Clinton vetoed the act, but a compromise was reached: a reassessment of moving the embassy would be heard every six months with the president making the final decision to move the embassy or not. Since then, every president has rejected moving the embassy to Jerusalem, citing national security risks. The next time the decision will be up is May of this year.
All in all, I’m worried. Trump has shown little of his knowledge of foreign affairs, and this is one of the biggest disasters that could happen in the Middle East. Moving the American embassy to Jerusalem is not as simple as just renting out a different building. The implications that go along with his decision and the symbolism that is associated with an embassy are more than I think Trump understands.