The copy keeps coming, the pundits keep pontificating and the repercussions -- both serious and superficial, real and imaginary -- continue to pile up since President Donald Trump’s pronouncement that the United States was shifting course and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s political capital.
None of that is surprising, of course. That’s how media and politics work.
Here’s something I do find surprising, however.
Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson -- is that still his job? -- said it would be at least three years before the American embassy in Israel actually moves from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Get that? At least three years. Thats’s an eternity, given the whirlwind pace of political change these days both in the United States and the Middle East. And yet Tillerson’s statement, delivered during a speech to State Department employees and reported in The New York Times and elsewhere, went decidedly under appreciated.
(To be fair, Tillerson and others in the Trump White House, plus some outside political defenders, noted previously that an embassy move would take some time. But I believe this was Tillerson’s, and the administration’s, clearest statement to date concerning the time frame.)
Here’s the top of the Times story.
WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said Tuesday that it is unlikely that the American Embassy will be moved to Jerusalem before 2020.
“It’s not going to be anything that happens right away,” Mr. Tillerson said, adding, “Probably no earlier than three years out, and that’s pretty ambitious.”
President Trump formally recognized Jerusalem last week as the Israeli capital, but he nevertheless signed a national security waiver, which will allow him to delay the movement of the embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv for an additional six months. Administration officials have said there are functional and logistical reasons the United States cannot open a new embassy any time in the near future.
There are also policy advantages to delaying the move, particularly if the administration wants to keep the peace process alive. The United States can spare itself a series of delicate decisions -- like where in Jerusalem to build the embassy -- that would begin to define the geography of Mr. Trump’s deliberately general statement about the city’s status.
Barring some unforeseen and perhaps even cataclysmic event that renders the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim worlds powerless in the extreme -- highly unlikely, in my view, and also undesirable, given the number of people that would disenfranchise internationally -- the moving of the physical embassy may have to wait for the coming of the Messiah.
Which is what a sizable portion of Jerusalem’s population is waiting for anyway (no matter who’s Messiah you have in mind, though given that it's Christmas I’ll nod to the Christian narrative this week).
Far more likely, I think, is that U.S. politics will be determinative.
Think about how much can transpire in three years. The 2018 congressional election. The 2020 presidential election.
Question: You know that should the American electorate turn on the Republican Party and Trump (if he’s still president) in the mode of Alabama’s Roy Moore and vote Democratic, that the embassy decision will be officially reversed or, deprived of political oxygen, allowed to wither on the vine?
Well, you should know that, if it's not abundantly clear already.
So am I saying that the American president was just playing politics on Jerusalem? Saying what many in his conservative evangelical Christian base wanted to hear (there’s that Messiah thing again), as well as catering to those American rightwing Jews, both religious and secular, for whom Israel (pun intended) trumps all other issues? And doing so without any intention to put his words into action?
Of course I am. American politicians, Republicans and Democrats, have been playing political games on the Jerusalem issue for decades. Trump may be be setting a new low when it comes to political posturing, in general, I’d say, but he’s far from the first to do so.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians and their closest allies, such as Iran and Turkey, continue to issue maximalist statements. Like Trump, they’re playing to the most intransigent members of their hardcore base.
They're also, I expect, playing right into Trump’s and the Israeli and pro-Israel Jewish right wing’s hands by again showing their firm unwillingness to bend in pursuit of peace (not that the current rightwing Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown much willingness to compromise either).
Here’s an example of this, courtesy of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s office. The Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site should not and cannot remain under Israeli control, one of his spokesmen said.
Because Islam also considers the Western Wall a holy site in accordance with its own religious narrative. That's an argument the Palestinians and many of their Muslim allies have made repeatedly over the years -- see here and also here.
Speaking of claims, should Trump -- pardon me while I try not to choke -- in his second term actually start to construct an American embassy in Jerusalem, ownership of the long-assumed site in Jerusalem on which it would likely stand is already being contested.
In short, Trump’s Jerusalem announcement has done little to move the chess pieces forward, the rhetorical game itself is sure to remain frustratingly alive for untold years to come, and the copy will just keep on coming.