Confusion Reigns As the Trump Administration Fights Itself and Israel Over Moving Our Embassy to Jerusalem

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, center, visits the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's Old City, Monday, May 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

We’re not really sure what is happening right now between Israel and the Trump administration but it is a mess.

One of Trump’s campaign promises was to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. That promise has run squarely into the opposition of the institutional “peace process” buzzsaw.

Top officials at the State Department, Department of Defense and the US intelligence community are urging the White House not to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, warning that such a decision would be harmful to the peace process and carry broader regional risks, a senior administration official and several US officials told CNN.

The pushback comes as President Donald Trump mulls the possibility of changing US policy toward Jerusalem and moving the US embassy there during his visit to the city next week.

Add to that the fact that Fox News ran a totally false report that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to put the move on hold:

The Israelis immediately called the Fox report a “lie” and released a summary of Netanyahu’s May 2 conversation with Trump on the issue.

Powell is almost certainly getting his information from inside State which has a been a bastion of anti-Israeli activity for over a half-century. And Powell admits his sources received the information secondhand.

But is seems like there is a concerted effort afoot to convince people that Netanyahu does not want the embassy moved:

https://twitter.com/NoahPollak/status/864188331596406785

This is a backdrop for something much more serious going on in Israel where Trump’s advance team is working on arrangements for his visit to Israel on May 22-23. From the Times of Israel:

In a bitter diplomatic incident, a senior member of the US delegation making preparations for Donald Trump’s visit to Israel next week angrily rejected a request that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accompany the president when he visits the Western Wall, and then sniped at his Israeli counterparts that the Western Wall is “not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank,” Israeli television reported on Monday night.

According to the Channel 2 report, the angry exchanges began when the Israeli team working with the American delegation asked whether Netanyahu could accompany Trump when he visits the Western Wall, a key expected stop on his May 22-23 visit to Israel and the West Bank. No serving US president has ever visited the Western Wall, because US policy has been that the final status of Jerusalem has yet to be resolved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The US delegation reportedly rejected the request for Netanyahu to join the visit, saying it would be “a private visit” by the president and that he would go on his own. The Israelis then asked whether a TV crew providing live coverage of the Trump visit could at least continue to film here there.

At this point, the TV report said, a senior American official rudely responded: “What are you talking about? It’s none of your business. It’s not even part of your responsibility. It’s not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank.”

These comments led to vociferous protests by the Israelis, with the discussion descending into shouting, and the Israelis reminding the US team that the Western Wall and adjacent area “is territory holy to Israel.”

And once they’d agreed to disagree on big stuff, the little stuff became natural.

The TV report quoted Israeli officials involved in the discussions with the Trump preparatory team describing them as “boorish” and “arrogant.” One was quoted saying of the presidential visit, “It’s the Trump. Everybody else is a mere extra, including Netanyahu.”

The unnamed Israeli officials were further quoted saying that the Trump team apparently considers “protocol to be merely a recommendation.” This was exemplified, they reportedly said, when the Trump team, at one stage of the preparations, told the Israelis that Trump could call on President Rivlin or visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, but not both. In the event, the TV report said, Trump will go to the Holocaust museum for just 15 minutes.

The specifics of the visit have not yet been confirmed, but the White House has made clear that Trump will hold talks with both Netanyahu and Rivlin.

Earlier Monday, a senior official in Jerusalem said Netanyahu is looking to deliver a speech at Masada together with Trump during the president’s visit, but that the American delegation organizing Trump’s visit has expressed reservations about the idea.

The Monday night TV report said the Trump team had yet to respond definitively to the Masada request.

The interesting part in this equation is that we don’t know the make-up of the advance team. The “not your territory” is not something one would expect to come from someone in the Trump camp, but it is very much in line with what you’d expect from a State department official. Making Trump the centerpiece of the visit to the detriment of all else is more likely than not Trump loyalists. What is further clouding all of this is the “play it by ear” way the administration is handling the whole process. I was encouraged by the initial actions of the administration in its settlements policy (here | here) as it made the Palestinians choose between agreeing to a two-state solution or watching Israel eat up more and more of the desirable areas that are contested thereby “creating facts on the ground.”

Tillerson’s linkage of the move of the embassy to Jerusalem to the peace process only makes sense if we seriously believe that Israel can be made to relinquish East Jerusalem and the Western Wall.

A lot of this is jockeying driven by motives that we can’t really understand. But it seems like that while Netanyahu and Trump are in agreement, the institutional pressures in the US government that have made a fetish of the Middle East peace process have gained the upper hand.