Last week, President Obama granted a six month extension to a waiver on the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, a law mandating the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For almost a decade, events around the propsed move have been repeating themselves endlessly like a broken record. It has become an uneventful, unchanging story—one that reflects the peace process it arguably aims to protect.
And yet, given settlement growth, recent timetables set by Secretary of State John Kerry and renewed efforts in Congress to circumvent the anticipated Presidential waivers (more on that in a bit), it seems naive to assume that these political maneuvers could go on forever.
When Congress passed The Jerusalem Embassy Act on October 23, 1995, it called to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999. The law also notably called for Jerusalem to remain an “undivided city” and for the U.S. to recognize it as Israel’s capital. This law sailed through Congress with wide margins, passing the Senate 93 to 5 and the House 374 to 37.
So what happened? Despite the vast majority of presidential candidates on the campaign trail, both Republican and Democrat, promising to move the embassy and to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, once elected into power, they all wisely avoided making their words into deeds. This is not because they were incapable, but because they recognized that the U.S. Congress should not make decisions regarding final status issues outside of bilateral peace negotiations, let alone for such a decision to be one that no other country in the world would accept or recognize.
Every President since 1995 has used the Presidential waiver, arguing that it breaches the executive branch’s constitutional authority over foreign policy. They understand that such a move would shrink the United States’ already thin credibility in the Middle East.
In the words of Jerusalem expert, Danny Seidemann, “Many recite the Jerusalem-The-Undivided-Capital-Of-Israel mantra because doing so is electorally expeditious, and inconsequential. But moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem outside of the context of a permanent status agreement would be HUGELY consequential. It would drive the U.S. into abject, unprecedented isolation, put it on a collision course with much of the rest of the world, and not contribute one bit to ‘uniting Jerusalem.’”
Some in Congress are looking to push back against the waiver power. In January, Representative Scott Garrett (R-NJ) authored a new bill: The Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act of 2013. While the likelihood of such a bill passing in the near future is extremely low, it would seem that as statements from John Kerry increase about various shrinking timetables for already tenuous peace prospects, the Obama Administration’s need to define its policy moving forward on Israel and Palestine will become more pressing. These policy shifts could have an impact on the enactment of the Jerusalem Embassy Act.
One notable difference between the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 and the Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act of 2013 is the attempt to remove the executive waiver authority granted by Section 7 of the law. Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) introduced a similar piece of legislation in the Senate, which also strikes the section allowing for the use of the Presidential waiver.
Garrett’s House bill has 23 co-sponsors right now, picking up its latest this past Monday with Representative Gene Green (D-TX). 19 Republicans and four Democrats represent the makeup of the House bill’s co-sponsors. Heller’s Senate version currently has a mere five co-sponsors, all Republican.
It is good news that Obama extended the Presidential waiver on the Jerusalem Embassy Act. Responsible leaders have recognized that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would be a mistake. Given the changing factors in the region, the question is how much longer will the United States be able to waive the law in the name of holding out for direct bilateral peace negotiations?
We’ve just passed the 46th anniversary of the Six Day War, whereby Israel took control of East Jerusalem, among other territories. If there is ever to be a two-state solution, then the Palestinian capital will be there. President Obama rightly passed another six month waiver this time. With the peace process in a shambles and Congress seeking to remove the presidential waiver, it would be a mistake to get complacent, and assume that this can go on forever.