Trump’s announcement is consistent with the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which required the U.S. to move its embassy to Jerusalem but allows the president a waiver every six months in the interest of national security. For the past 22 years, presidents of both parties have relied on the waiver to delay the move.
But has the confusion over U.S. policy come to an end, or has it simply entered a new phase? Recent indications of a disconnect between the White House and the State Department over Jerusalem have raised questions about the meaning of the presidential declaration, even as supporters of the policy shift continue to embrace the symbolic change they have long sought.
Two days after the president’s announcement, Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield told reporters that “on consular practice there is no change at this time” in the wake of the White House declaration. This raises important questions about implementation of U.S. policy. For example:
1. Americans born in Jerusalem have never been allowed to designate Israel as their country of birth in their U.S. passports; rather, their place of birth is merely identified as “Jerusalem.” Will this change in light of President Trump’s decision to “finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital”?
2. The U.S. consulate in Jerusalem has always reported directly to the State Department instead of the U.S. embassy to Israel, as though Jerusalem were a separate country. Will the consulate now report to the embassy, which is set to move to Jerusalem?
3. White House and State Department official documents have until now identified Jerusalem simply by the name of the city, rather than by “Jerusalem, Israel.” Will U.S. government communiqués finally acknowledge what President Trump’s announcement did, namely, that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, rather than an independent city?
Then there is the matter of when the embassy move, the most tangible symbol of the U.S. policy shift, will actually take place. Many procedural steps remain, such as finding a site in Jerusalem, securing funding, completing construction, and satisfying complex security requirements. This could take years. In the meantime, it is possible Trump will continue exercising the presidential waiver, as he has done twice this year. Until the move is finalized or at least well underway – until the U.S. policy shift becomes grounded in steel and concrete – America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will seem more ephemeral than permanent.
Nevertheless, the United States has crossed a threshold of sorts. The administration has conceded that Israel, like any other country in the world, is entitled to select its capital and have that choice be honored by the international community. On Israel’s path toward the long-overdue normalization of its place in the world, this step cannot be discounted.