President Donald Trump’s decision on Thursday not to move the U.S. embassy in Israel for at least another six months was disappointing to some of his supporters, to pro-Israel activists, and to the Israeli government.
The White House declared that the president “has repeatedly stated his intention to move the embassy, the question is not if that move happens, but only when.”
That was encouraging — but the stated reason for the delay was, perhaps, less so.
The White House said that Trump wanted “to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.” To many who have watched decades of negotiations, that statement is wishful thinking.
Arguably, the Palestinians have proven repeatedly they do not want a peace deal. They walked away from an agreement in 2000 that would have divided Jerusalem. To them, it is everything, or nothing.
President Trump is more optimistic. He believes that he has the Saudis on board, and that they can help deliver the Palestinians.
He may be right.
In 2000, the Saudis privately told Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that he would be making a big mistake by refusing to sign a deal. But that pressure was too little, too late. With the Saudis involved from the beginning, and publicly, that pressure may prove more effective on Mahmoud Abbas than it was on Arafat.
But if the Saudis cannot prod the Palestinians into making concessions, then delaying the embassy move to appease the Palestinians will give Israel’s enemies an effective veto over its sovereignty.
The Arab leaders who have been meeting eagerly with the Trump administration over the past several months probably consider the embassy delay a diplomatic achievement — even if it is also one that may benefit Israel in the long run, if Trump is correct.
Yet the real reason for delaying the embassy move may have less to do with the peace process and more to do with fears about consequences for the U.S. This is hinted at in the White House statement that the president’s decision was made in the course of “fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America’s national security interests.”
That suggests there may be concerns that moving the embassy in Israel would put other embassies at greater risk of terrorism.
The problem may not just be ideological opposition from anti-Israel careerists in the State Department — what President Harry Truman once called the “striped pants conspirators.” The fact is that terrorists have shown an ability to target several embassies at once, as in the demonstrations and attacks of September 11, 2012. President Trump has plenty to worry about in Syria and in North Korea without facing new threats at embassies around the world.
An answer to that argument would be that the U.S. should never let terrorists dictate our policy agenda. We are already under threat, after all.
But practically speaking, it would be difficult to manage escalated terror threats against all of our embassies — and not just in the Middle East. President Trump likely has to consider the chance that American lives may be at risk if he moves the embassy without a peace deal — or without trying, at least.
From the perspective of the commander-in-chief, if the same result can be achieved with less risk to U.S. national security by waiting several months or years, it may be better to wait. If he tries for peace, and the Palestinians let him down, he can then move the embassy anyway, and prepare in the meantime to manage the consequences.
There was a golden opportunity to make the move on Day One, or on the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem. But if can Trump can achieve the seemingly impossible — an embassy move in the context of a peace agreement — then that will have been worth the wait.
Certainly Israel would prefer to be spared the brunt of another Palestinian intifada, at least while it faces the danger of a would-be-nuclear Iran. In the meantime, the whole discussion about the embassy has been re-framed towards an expectation that it will be moved under this president.
There is no practical reason to deny that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. The entire apparatus of its central government is in the western part of the city, on land that is never going to be given away. And Trump is plainly sincere in his concern for Israel’s interest, not only visiting the Western Wall on his trip but also showing Abbas a video proving the Palestinian government has been inciting hatred.
One can only pray his efforts for peace are rewarded, and soon.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. He is the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.