On Monday, May 14, the United States officially relocated its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The controversial move was the culmination of two and a half decades of US foreign policy, beginning with the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. The formal dedication of the new embassy occurred on the seventieth anniversary of Israeli independence, a coincidence that bolstered US-Israel relations and exacerbated the already strained relationship between the US and the Palestinian Authority. Much has been written at Providence concerning the anniversary—including articles by Robert Nicholson, Marc LiVecche, Daniel Strand, and Gerald McDermott—and concerning the Embassy—including one by Robert Nicholson. But we want to dig deeper.
As part of the Providence POV series, the editors at Providence reached out to friends and colleagues in the region, Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Christians, to share their points of view from the frontlines of debate. Beyond the clamor, commentary, and criticism, we want to know the real-life effects of American foreign policy.
Below are the POV responses from Israelis Faydra Shapiro, Shadi Khaloul, and Assaf Boker, and Palestinian Khalil Sayegh.
Providence: In one sense, nothing much really changes. Jews have been the majority population in Jerusalem since the late 1800s. The city has been the official capital of modern Israel since 1949. The Knesset and other major government ministries are already in Jerusalem. Moreover, the embassy is in West Jerusalem, an area of the city that has always been part of modern Israel. But this move was nevertheless momentous. Why? What is the historic or symbolic significance of the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem?
Assaf: For us Israelis, the historic importance of moving the embassy is the international recognition we receive from the world’s most influential superpower. The fact that Jerusalem did not have any embassies for 38 years (since 1980) had been a painful topic for Israelis, and this decision clearly changes that.
Providence: The move has, naturally, divided Americans. How do Israelis view the move? What about Palestinians?
Shadi: Israeli people are mostly happy and satisfied with the Trump decision. As a Christian Aramaic Israeli citizen, I feel satisfied with it as well because Jerusalem under Jewish control assures freedom of worship, safety, and security to all nations. Some Palestinians representing the Arab Islamic cause are disappointed by this move and see this as taking Jerusalem from their hands again. The aim of many Palestinians will remain consistent, and they will continue to advocate for the establishment of an Islamic state with its capital being Jerusalem. This was confirmed recently by Kamal Khatib, leader of the Islamic Brotherhood Movement in Israel.
Faydra: The move has been met with great enthusiasm by many Israelis because it finally acknowledges the obvious right of Israel as an independent nation to determine its own capital. Jerusalem as the capital is one of the basic cornerstones of Zionism today, and there are really no Israeli voices who would question that foundation. So, American respect for how we Israelis understand ourselves and our state is quite welcome. That said, some Israelis also wonder if the potential real cost might outweigh the symbolic benefit. Symbolism is important. But so is attention to reality. The issue of Jerusalem is too complex for just one or the other.
Providence: Is this move really the primary factor behind the increase in demonstrations and violence on the Gaza border? If not, what are the protesters really after? If yes, why? And why aren’t there similar responses in the West Bank?
Khalil: The protest is one of the most complex issues right now. The Palestinians and protest organizers have issued public statements reflecting the importance of their cause. Their greatest fear is that the world will lose sight of their stated goal of achieving Palestinian statehood and a right of return, even if a limited one, for the Palestinian people. While the embassy and the politics surrounding it are important, my observation is that most of the protesters in Gaza are protesting to end the siege and ensure greater access to a better quality of life for the millions of Palestinians living there.
Faydra: Demonstrations on the Gaza border have been happening for months and gaining in intensity. The move of the US embassy is pretty irrelevant, except for it being a convenient media opportunity. My impression is that many protestors actually came in a peaceful effort to raise awareness of the very real tragedy in Gaza. At the same time, Hamas needs to show its “relevance” to the people of Gaza and thus tends to fan conflict rather than seek the kind of real and difficult solutions that might be part of building a viable future.
The West Bank is a world apart. There is more order and more official and unofficial cooperation with Israel. Palestinians in the West Bank also have a higher socio-economic status, more to lose, and more to hope for.
Providence: What impact will this move have on the city, Israel, the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, between Israel and the wider region and the world, and your daily lives?
Khalil: From the Palestinian perspective, moving the embassy added to the current distrust that Palestinians have concerning the viability of the US to be a successful mediator of the conflict. If the Palestinians do not trust the US, and the Israelis trust only the US, this makes the possibility of future negotiations unlikely.
Shadi Khaloul is a Fellow at the Philos Project and an Aramean Christian Maronite Israeli. He serves as the chairman and founder of the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association and is a spokesperson for the Christian Israel Defense Forces Officers Forum.
Faydra Shapiro is a Senior Fellow at the Philos Project and an Orthodox Jew with a lifelong interest in Christianity. She is the founding director of the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations and holds a PhD in Religious Studies.
Assaf Boker is a tour leader at Boker Tours; his position includes marketing, planning, leading, and evaluating a variety of tours in Israel with different clients including Birthright, March of the Living, Stand With Us, the Philos Project, Passages, and private clients
Khalil Sayegh is a Palestinian Christian born in the Gaza strip and serves as an Associate Fellow at the Philos Project. Khalil is working to change the perception of Israel and the West, fight anti-Semitism, and educate his neighbors about good things their so-called “enemies” are doing.