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Moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem is a Very Bad Idea

The Western Wall and the golden Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Israel, on sunset. (Getty Images)
The Western Wall and the golden Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Israel, on sunset. (Getty Images)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter@JosephVMicallef.

The issue of moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem has been a recurring theme in American politics for the better part of 30 years. Candidates propose the move in the belief that it will curry support among Jewish-American voters. In reality, it is an issue that divides the Jewish-American community in the U.S. Moreover, its supporters extend well beyond Jewish-Americans to include a significant number of evangelical Christians and political conservatives.

During the 2016 presidential elections the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, promised that once he was elected he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel, currently in Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem. In doing so, he was echoing a theme that has been played out in the previous six presidential elections.

Implicit in such a move would be the formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Following the 1948 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the western portion of Jerusalem came under the control of the Israeli government, while the eastern portion, the historic "old city," came under the control of the Jordanian government.

Israel declared West Jerusalem the capital of Israel in 1949. The next year Jordan annexed the portions of East Jerusalem under its control. During the 1967, Six Day War, Israeli forces took control of East Jerusalem and subsequently unified the two halves. In 1980, Israel's "Jerusalem Law Proclamation" declared that the newly united Jerusalem was the capital of Israel.

The original 1947 UN Partition Plan for the British Mandate of Palestine had recommended that the city of Jerusalem be granted a special status as a Corpus separatum, a separate status as an "independent city" under the direct administration of the U.N. The original proposal also included the city of Bethlehem. After 10 years, a separate referendum would be held to allow the inhabitants of Bethlehem to decide their future affiliation.

No other country has ever recognized the designation of either West Jerusalem or, after 1980, the entire city as the capital of Israel. The United Kingdom and Pakistan were the only two countries that ever recognized the Jordanian seizure of East Jerusalem during the period from 1950 to 1967. The UN Security Council has passed a total of seven resolutions, starting with UN Resolution 478 in 1980, declaring that Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem and its declaration of Jerusalem as the country's capital contravened international law.

Both the Reagan and W.H. Bush administrations were opposed to moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. As candidates for the presidency, however, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and most recently Donald J. Trump, all pledged to move the U.S. embassy. In 1995, the U.S. Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act directing the transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by no later than May 31, 1999. All three recent presidents, Clinton, Bush and Obama, have refused to implement the act on the basis that it infringed upon the President's constitutional authority to conduct foreign policy.

From 1949, until relatively recently, the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority was one of the principal axes around which Middle East politics revolved. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's former National Security Adviser, called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "the single most combustible and galvanizing issue in the Arab world." During the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union aligned themselves along opposite sides of this axis. Washington emerged as the principal arms supplier to Israel, while Moscow played a similar role with the principal front line states of Syria and Egypt. Libya and Iraq, while they were not "frontline states," also considered themselves implacable foes of Israel and both were also prominent Soviet clients in the region.

The success of the Camp David Accords flipped Egypt from the Soviet camp to the U.S. camp and brought a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt that has now endured for more than 35 years. The collapse of the Soviet Union, combined with the overthrow of Soviet client regimes in Libya (Gaddafi) and Iraq (Hussein) and the end of the Cold War, ended superpower rivalry over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but that did not make the conflict any easier to resolve. Despite repeated attempts by the last three U.S. presidents, the conflict is no closer to being resolved today than it was in 1978, when the Camp David Accords were signed.

Over the last two decades, however, the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the defining axis around which Mideast politics revolves has become progressively less prominent. Instead, the rise of Iranian power and influence; Tehran's self-appointed role as the defender of Shiite minorities, and in some case, like Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon, Shiite majorities, and its ongoing efforts to mobilize Shiite groups to advance its own foreign policy goals; as well as its aggressive pursuit of a nuclear capability and its intent to emerge as a regional hegemonic power in the Middle East, has upended Middle East politics. In the process, it has created a new axis of conflict that is rapidly reorganizing the region's political alignments.

The spread of Iranian influence within the Shiite communities across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza, even though Gaza and Syria have a majority Sunni population, has created an "Iranian Arc of Influence" across the northern tier of the Mideast. In the meantime, and even more worrisome to Riyadh and its Gulf allies, Tehran's support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen and for the sizeable Shiite populations in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, a major oil producing region, as well as in Bahrain, where Shiites are a majority, and elsewhere along the western flank of the Persian Gulf, threatens to create a second Iranian "Arc of Influence" that would surround the Sunni governments of the Arabian Peninsula.

This Iranian-Saudi/Shia-Sunni fault line is increasingly becoming the principal axis around which the region politics evolve. Just as in the cold war, Russia and the United States are aligning themselves along opposite sides of the rift. Moscow has emerged as a strong supporter of Tehran and its "Shiite agenda" while Washington, the ambivalence under the Obama administration notwithstanding, is the principal supporter of the Sunni regimes.

In this environment, Israel has quietly strengthened its relations with many of the Arab governments that have traditionally, at least publicly, been officially opposed to the continued existence of the Israeli state. The thaw became noticeable in 2006, when both Cairo and Riyadh quietly sided with Israel in its conflict with Hezbollah in what came to be called the July war or the Second Lebanon War. The Sunni governments see Hezbollah as little more than an Iranian Shiite proxy quick to do Tehran's bidding and a growing threat to the region's political stability.

The recent agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia for the transfer of the islands of Tiran and Sanafi is symptomatic of this new thaw. It underscores an unprecedented development whose long-range significance has been missed by Western media. The two islands were originally controlled by Saudi Arabia. The islands sit at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea. They dominate the narrow channel connecting the two bodies of water and are critical to controlling it.

Fearing that the islands would be seized by Israel, the Saudi's turned over the islands to Egypt in 1950. Israel did subsequently seize the islands in the 1956 war that accompanied the Suez crisis and again in 1967, during the six-day war. The islands were returned to Egypt, along with the Sinai Peninsula, under the Camp David Accords. The fact that the Saudis now want the islands back is a powerful statement that they see the outbreak of renewed conflict between Israel and Egypt as virtually inconceivable. That doesn't mean that the historic enmity between Israel and its Arab neighbors has gone away. Far from it–it is still very much alive. It simply means that both sides realize that any renewed conflict is in neither of their interest and that Iran poses a larger threat to their mutual security.

In the wake of the Iranian Revolution, Tehran sought to craft an anti-Israeli/pro-Palestinian policy as a vehicle to attain a position of leadership in the Middle East. This position was presented as an issue that could rally both Shias and Sunnis under Iranian leadership. This was a radical departure from the past. Pre-revolution Iran had enjoyed close and mutually supportive relations with Israel. Iran had for many years been Israel's principal supplier of crude oil. Until then, Shia communities, while generally supportive of the Palestinian cause, had not demonstrated the virulent, anti-Israeli vitriol that would eventually come to characterize Iran's position. Tehran's gambit failed. Notwithstanding the enmity between Israelis and Arabs, it was trumped by the even longer standing, historic enmity and distrust between Arabs and Persians.

The de facto alliance between Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbors is a tenuous one. It is not an alignment that would be supported by Arab public opinion. Decades of anti-Israel propaganda do not easily disappear, certainly not overnight. It is in this context that a move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem must be evaluated. Such an announcement would precipitate widespread public demonstrations throughout the Middle East and would force Sunni governments to denounce both Israel and the United States, ostensibly two of their most important allies against Iran. It would undermine the developing Israeli-Sunni Arab alignment and could pressure Arab governments to craft a more forceful response to placate the Arab street. This is the reason that Arab governments are publicly urging Washington to refrain from moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Privately, the Israeli military and intelligence community is telling Washington the same thing. The only country to benefit from such a development would be Iran.

This is after all the Middle East. Nothing is ever what it appears to be on the surface. The Sunni world is still a long way away from embracing Israel, much less acknowledging its right to exist. Nonetheless, a historic conflict that has set the tempo of Middle East politics for three-quarters of a century is rapidly being put aside to deal with the larger security issues poised by the reemergence of historic Persian imperialism. That doesn't mean that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going to disappear. It isn't, but its continuation is less likely to define Mideast politics in the future. Byzantine? That word doesn't even begin to describe the nature of Mideast politics today.

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