President-elect Donald Trump’s transition has been floating the possibility of initially having the US ambassador to Israel work and live in the US consulate in Jerusalem, while the American Embassy remains in Tel Aviv.
Several diplomats, Israeli officials and sources close to the transition who are familiar with the idea said it could be seen as compromise that gives a nod to Israel on Jerusalem – which Israel and the Palestinians both claim as their capital – without the firestorm a formal relocation of the embassy from Tel Aviv would almost certainly bring.
Diplomats said there have been signs Trump may pull back from his campaign pledge to relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem amid warnings from Arab and European diplomats to the incoming administration that the move could unleash violence, undermine the peace process, damage US standing in the Middle East, and endanger American personnel.
Trump spoke about moving the US Embassy repeatedly during the campaign.
In a speech to the pro-Israel lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March, Trump said he wanted to “move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” In a subsequent TV interview, he said the move would happen “fairly quickly.”
Trump has named New York lawyer David Friedman as his ambassador to Israel, pending Senate confirmation. Friedman has long been a proponent of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and, upon being named, said he looked forward to working “from the US Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.” Under the option being considered, Friedman would be given an office in the consulate.
The 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act calls on the US to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate the embassy there. But the law allows for the move to be waived if the President deems it harmful to US national security interests.
Since it passed, every US president – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – has signed the waiver every six months, even though Bush and Clinton had promised to move the embassy during their presidential campaigns.
Earlier this month, Obama renewed a presidential waiver delaying the move for another six months, citing “national security interests.” The waiver expires June 1.
Israeli sources have suggested the May 24 Israeli holiday of “Jerusalem Day” as a possible date for relocating the embassy. That national holiday commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem and the establishment of Israeli control over the Old City following the June 1967 Six Day War and typically is marked by ceremonies and memorial services.
Diplomatic sources said having Friedman work out of the consulate, at least until the waiver expires, could give the incoming administration time to think through the consequences of relocating the embassy and find a face-saving way to back out of Trump’s campaign pledge.
Diplomats suggested that once the administration is in office for a few months, the threat of more chaos in the Middle East and the need not to alienate US Arab allies may cause a newly minted President Trump to sing a different tune.