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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the Arctic Council 20th Anniversary Welcome Reception in Fairbanks, Alaska, May 10, 2017.Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
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Tillerson Signals Trump Won’t Be Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem Anytime Soon

Hard-right pro-Israel partisans who lined up behind Trump are just the latest contractors he has stiffed

Yair Rosenberg
May 15, 2017
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the Arctic Council 20th Anniversary Welcome Reception in Fairbanks, Alaska, May 10, 2017.Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was interviewed on NBC’s Meet the Press. He was pressed by host Chuck Todd about whether President Trump plans to keep his campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Under the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, the president must sign a waiver every six months to prevent such a move. The next deadline is May 31, shortly after Trump plans to visit Israel on his first foreign trip.

Here’s how Tillerson responded to Todd’s query:

CHUCK TODD: The issue of moving the embassy, the U.S. embassy, to Jerusalem. It has been reported that it is not going to happen, and then that’s been retracted. Let me ask you this. When is the final decision, or is this going to be one of those things that we’re always going to contemplate moving it, but it’s a moving target for a while?

SECRETARY REX TILLERSON: Well, the president, I think rightly, has taken a very deliberative approach to understanding the issue itself, listening to input from all interested parties in the region, and understanding, in the context of a peace initiative, what impact would such a move have.

As you know, the president has recently expressed his view that he wants to put a lot of effort into seeing if we cannot advance a peace initiative between Israel and Palestine. And so I think in large measure the president is being very careful to understand how such a decision would impact a peace process.

TODD: So this could be a while? That if the peace processes is active, he’ll hold off on moving the embassy. That seems to be how I interpreted your answer. Is that a fair interpretation?

TILLERSON: Well, I think it’ll be informed, again, by the parties that are involved in those talks. And most certainly Israel’s view on whether Israel views it as being helpful to a peace initiative or perhaps a distraction. And so again, I think the president’s being very measured in how he goes about this. And appropriately so.

The bottom line: Like every one of his predecessors, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who both promised to move the embassy if elected, Trump isn’t going to do so anytime soon. Like prior presidents, he is subordinating the issue to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and is unwilling to jeopardize those negotiations by moving the embassy in advance of a settlement.

The embassy flip-flop offers still more evidence that Trump’s Israel/Palestine policy is shaping up to be largely conventional, contrary to the campaign claims of many on the left and right, not to mention the media. As I wrote back in February, when many in the press erroneously reported that Trump had abandoned U.S. support for the two-state solution:

[T]here is another factor that led the reporters to jump the gun in eulogizing U.S. support for two states: a commitment to a narrative about Trump and Israel that has not actually materialized. Trump’s election was assumed by many to herald a new doggedly pro-Israel American administration that would march in lockstep with the Jewish state’s Likud government, or even to its right. Trump, who initially declared himself “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, worked hard to foster this pro-Israel perception once he realized it would help his political prospects with Republican voters like evangelicals. But he never actually evinced any serious knowledge or convictions about the subject, and as a result, had to take the unusual step of reading a pre-scripted AIPAC address off a teleprompter. (When speaking off the cuff, by contrast, Trump tended to say less congenial things, like suggesting Israel should have to pay back U.S. defense aid.) The questionable casting of Trump as a far-right pro-Israel partisan was also boosted by a group of fringe activists to AIPAC’s right who coalesced around Trump and loudly declared victory over the bipartisan two-state consensus when he won.

But whatever the merits of this narrative during the campaign, it has been decidedly disproven by Trump’s own actions since his inauguration. Rather than green-lighting Israeli settlement activity and tearing up the Iran deal, Trump has repeatedly called for restraint. He has backpedaled on his promise to move the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. He even went so far as to tell his donor Sheldon Adelson’s own Israeli newspaper that “I am not someone who believes that advancing settlements is good for peace.” He repeated this point to Netanyahu’s face at their joint press conference, and asserted that “the Israelis are going to have to show some flexibility… they’re going to have to show the fact that they really want to make a deal.”

This month alone, Trump’s secretary of state has backpedaled on moving the U.S. embassy, his administration is expected to waive more sanctions on Iran to uphold Obama’s nuclear deal, and his hard-right ambassador to Israel David Friedman has been telling Israeli officials that they must work with Trump to achieve a peace deal with the Palestinians. There is little to distinguish these moves from the past policies of the Obama and Bush administrations.

In other words, hard-right pro-Israel partisans who lined up behind Donald Trump are turning out to be just the latest contractors he has stiffed.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.