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Does the US Embassy’s Move to Jerusalem Matter?

Last week, President Donald Trump declined to sign a waiver delaying the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in Israel, breaking precedent with the previous three administrations and igniting a global firestorm of controversy. We spoke to Todd Deatherage, co-founder of the Telos Group, about the move and what it means. The Telos Group is an organization attempting to build a “pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace movement” in the Middle East.

RELEVANT: In 1995, the U.S. technically recognized the capital of Israel as Jerusalem, but in terms of moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, administrations from Clinton to Obama would sign this waiver that delayed the process for six months and they were doing that over and over.

TODD: Yeah exactly, so Congress tried to force the administrations in 1995 to go ahead and recognize Jerusalem as the capital by moving our embassy there, and President Clinton, President Bush and President Obama continued every six months to decline to do that, saying it wasn’t in our best interest. And what they were recognizing was that Jerusalem is one of the most contentious issues that has to be resolved.

The thing about Jerusalem is, yes, it is the cradle of Hebrew civilization, it is the city that David conquered and became the center of the biblical kingdom of Israel, and it has been revered and holy to Jews for 3,000 years and for 2,000 years of exile. It has been an important, resonant city for Jews. So when the Zionists came in 1948 and established Israel, they put their capital there. That’s all true, important and critical obviously.

But it’s also true that it is the birthplace of Christianity. It’s been holy to Christians for 2,000 years and there is a Christian community that exists there to this day that has been there in different forms all throughout the centuries.

It is holy to Muslims, from the very beginning. The Dome of the Rock goes back to the earliest days of Islam and is the third holiest site in Islam.

And in the modern era, just like the Israelis claimed [Jerusalem] as their capital in ‘48, the Palestinian national movement also sees it as their capital, even though they don’t have a capital there because they don’t have a state. But that has always been one of the things you have to solve for in this conflict.

You have to solve four core issues. Probably the most sensitive one is Jerusalem, because all people claim it and all three religious communities have deep connections to it. And so, the answer to this is not to have one triumph over the other, one religion to exclude another. But to do something in a way that honors the multiple claims on Jerusalem and allows all those who have some connection to it to be realized and recognized.

RELEVANT: Why was it important for past presidents, as well as this president, to move the embassy to Jerusalem and treat Jerusalem as the capital of Israel? Why was it a part of their campaign?

This conflict between Israel and Palestine has gone on for generations now and it’s been something that for many years is seen as being important for our own interest.

We’ve seen that our interest in terms of resolving the conflict actually furthers our interest in the region by creating maybe a greater opportunity for peace and civility, bringing an end to this situation for our allies, the Israelis, but recognizing Palestinian self-determination. So we’ve determined our interests and we’ve led peace negotiations, but what you have to remember with this conflict is that it functions much more like a domestic political issue in the U.S. than it does a true foreign policy challenge.

It’s one of those unique foreign policy issues that every presidential candidate has to take a position on when they run for office. There’s always some hot issue going on, whether, back in the ’90s when I was first getting involved in politics, things like NATO expansion were important, the end of the Cold War and what comes after that. More recently we obviously have to know what people think about Iran and North Korea and things like that.

For many years now, it’s been important for U.S. presidential candidates and other people running for political office to take a position on this. One of those has been historically to promise that we would move our embassy and recognize Jerusalem as the capital. We have Americans who care deeply about this issue and they’ve channeled a lot of their passion into activism that mirrors the conflict in a lot of ways. They are often pro-Israel in a way that is anti-Palestinian. And increasingly there is a voice that is pro-Palestinean in ways that are anti-Israel. And all of that can feel good and be justified but a lot of that can end up serving conflict.

So when these men get elected into the presidency, they really have to make the tough decisions, what’s in America’s best interest. Up to this point, they’ve all declined doing that, saying it wasn’t in our best interest and it wasn’t in the interest of trying to reach any peace agreement, so it wasn’t in any Palestinian or Israel interest either. And Trump has sort of tried to split the difference by signing a waiver but making this more dramatic shift towards recognition at the same time.

RELEVANT: Primarily this is a political decision by the President and in practice it may not change that much. So do you see this as more of a political move to appease a certain group of voters, or will this actually change things in practice?

There are people who will say “Oh my gosh, the sky is falling.” And there are people who will say, “What’s the big deal?”

Really, I think the impact is definitely in the middle. It’s not nothing and it’s not the end of everything. It’s something in between. It’s definitely a significant move by the United States. It doesn’t change much because there’s no immediate effect in terms of the embassy actually moving. It starts the process with what the administration is saying will be a multi-year process with finding a new location, and then going through the process that you have to go through to set up a new embassy and build it to certain codes of security, and on and on and on this will go. So there’s that.

But on the other hand, in the immediate term, I think it does some things that are important. First of all, it diminishes the U.S. leadership role in this conflict. Right now, the Palestinians have basically said, “We’ve given up on the United States playing any constructive role in peace so we’re not even going to meet with Vice President Pence when he comes to the region in the next few days.” So you’ve basically got the U.S. role, very diminished by this.

Secondly, I think it actually strengthens the voice of radicalism, because there have been a lot of radical voices that have jumped into this to say, “See? The Americans were never serious about trying to make peace and they’ve always been very one-sided.” And maybe this should be no surprise, but it strengthens these radical voices and it makes people say, “Yeah, those guys trying to negotiate peace on the Palestinian side got really shafted on this.” And it gives this kind of voice to radicalism and that’s definitely not in our interest.

And then the third thing that it does, it makes it harder to create peace. The president has been talking for some time about how he’s going to roll out his peace initiative in the next few months. He’s going to put his son-in-law behind it, there’s a whole team working on this, they had a number of meetings in the outer world trying to draw Arab leaders into it to give Israel more of an incentive to want to make an agreement by normalizing relations with Arab countries to make peace with the Palestinians.

So that work just got harder because one of those core issues is now no longer on the table. And if you read what U.S. diplomats who’ve served both administrations are saying, they’re all scratching their heads saying, “We did this and got nothing in exchange for it.”

This does not seem like a great bargain, because the U.S. gave this away without getting anything in return. That’s true and puts us in a weaker position as we try to roll out the peace initiatives in a couple months.

RELEVANT: Who exactly are the critics of this decision and who is in support of it? Maybe both here at home from a political standpoint, and in the Middle East from a diplomatic standpoint. 

Let’s start with the evangelical Christians. They have a certain eschatology or political ideology around this conflict. It’s an important issue for them and they’ve made that clear to the administration. This is being interpreted by some Christians as being a real act of divine providence that God is doing something through President Trump and in this announcement.

The Jewish community has longed for this for a long time, this recognition that gives greater legitimacy to Jerusalem and to the state of Israel’s claims for Jerusalem to be the capital. There’s definitely been many who are supportive of that. There’s some voices in the Jewish community—and not inconsequential voices—who express some concern about how it was done and when. The leader of the reform Jewish movement, Rick Jacobs, definitely supports the idea that Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel, but at the same time, this felt like it was not the right way to do it. There’s been some hesitation there, so it’s not a monolithic voice even within the Jewish community.

And in Israel, it’s the same kind of thing. You may have some that are very welcoming of this and see it as a great opportunity to perhaps get other nations to follow suit and follow other embassies to Jerusalem. Then there are some Israeli Jews that are very committed to the idea of a two-state solution, sayingthat the existential threats to Israel is the failure to make peace with the Palestinians. So they think this is undermining events but there are already voices in the Jewish community that are critical of this.

People who have spoken out against this are the Palestinians. I mean they were not apparently consulted on this, they were only informed of it at the very last minute, so they’ve reacted angrily. Those who have been a part of the negotiation efforts for years obviously feel both betrayed and undermined and are seen as being ineffectual in the way this happened. And the more radical voices in society have reacted very angrily and called for days of rage and have lead protests in Gaza, and there have been protests in the other parts of the Arab world.

There have been other leaders who announced this, including the new crowned prince in Saudi Arabia. Other governments as well have denounced this. And again there have been protests in some of these countries. It’s not been mass uprising, and it’s not clear how deeply or widely it’s felt throughout the Middle East.

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And then you have a host of European governments who have questioned the decision: the British and the French in particular, the Germans, too. The Vatican, Pope Francis … people even in the Trump administration have talked about how concerned they are about Arab Christians. You have Arab Christians very much concerned about this and speaking in opposition to this. The Palestinian Evangelical Community have written and spoken against it. The Coptic Church in Egypt has declined to meet with Pence on his trip as a result of this.

And around the world there has been very little support and quite a lot of opposition. But there are some others that are saying, “It’s OK, this is not a bad thing to do,” but they’re a minority.

RELEVANT: For someone who’s hearing this decision and approaching this for the first time, how would you advise them when it comes to approaching this this news critically and faithfully?

It is a difficult, complicated issue and how you get smart on it does require an investment of time and energy. What’s really important is to remember that Jerusalem is a city with multiple claims on it. It has to be allowed to speak in multiple voices. It’s important to familiarize yourself with why Jewish Christians and Muslims all feel deeply connected to it, and why Israelis and Palestinians as national groups in the modern era both have modern connections and claims to it.

It doesn’t mean you have to split everything down the middle, but appreciating that and trying to learn from people and learn how each of them view it is helpful in forming your own views on this.

Jerusalem has this ability to be a city that emanates a different kind of way of living together in the larger Middle East at a time when the Middle East is very much challenged by sectarianism and the war and violence and so forth. So anything that, in the global community, we can do to encourage Jerusalem to be that positive example and honor each other’s stories in a way that allows them to have their place. That sets an example that the world desperately needs right now.

And as Christians think about this, it’s really important to bring the fullness of scripture and your fullest theology to this. Because if you just look at contemporary Jerusalem through a prophetic lens or eschatological lens, you can lose sight of the fact that it’s a real city with real people and real stories that need to be understood. So if we disconnect the humanity of Jerusalem, we are missing something very central to what the Gospel requires of us.

If we take Jesus’ call to join Him in His renewing and redemptive work in the world as agents of reconciliation and ambassadors of his kingdom, we’re going to look at a situation like Jerusalem that is very complicated, and broken and scarred by violence and bloodshed, and we’re not going to write it off and we’re not gonna just let ourselves get caught up in some vision that may or may not be connected to scripture.

RELEVANT: Lastly, is there any action that Christians can take at the ground level to be promotors of peace and justice in the Middle East?

Certainly. First of all, just learning more is the first step because of the complexity of this. It’s helpful that we have some understanding before we try to act. Secondly, to build relationships, to get to know people, to get to know Jewish and Muslim neighbors here at home, to introduce yourself to Arab Christians—typically those from the region. Palestinian Christians who have deep connections and interest to this. So learning more and building some relationships are critical, and then finding ways to support people here and there who are working for peace and conflict resolution. There are a number of organizations on the ground doing the work of coexistence and peacemaking and justice. And there are organizations here at home like Telos, where we’re trying to build communities of peacemakers that can be voices for things that can allow the conflict there to be resolved.

We reject this idea that if I’m pro-Israel I have to be anti-Palestinian and vice versa. We say that’s actually a false paradigm. We’re trying to make people who are pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian and pro-peace. So if we could do that, we can create a community of Americans who believe and support those kinds of policies and let people who are in authority know that and support groups on the ground that are doing that kind of work. We have opportunity to bring a different approach to this to allow us to move toward solving our own conflict.

But it’s important for Christians to know the extent of which evangelical Christianity’s point of view shaped this decision. There’s a group of evangelical leaders who have his ear and make very clear in public that this is very important to them, and they’ve communicated that to the president.

Part of this being done in the way it was is because it was something that the people in the President’s core constituency wanted done and they are self-described evangelical Christian. So if you’re evangelical and you feel differently about this, it is important that you understand this is the way that a lot of other fellow Americans and people who are not evangelicals and certainly people in the Middle East are seeing evangelical influence in U.S. decision making.

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