Michael Bell is a former Canadian ambassador to Israel, Jordan and Egypt. Before the last federal election, he advised Justin Trudeau on foreign policy.
Donald Trump is headed for trouble. The proposed move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem is the result of calculations made by the remarkably ill-informed group surrounding him. This team lacks any serious knowledge or understanding of the Middle East.
Despite speculation that the move might be made official this week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer added a critical caveat: that the issue is "at the very beginning stages of even discussing."
The Trump transition team, however, is examining the logistics of the move. The site being considered was formerly the home of the British Army's Jerusalem garrison during the Palestine Mandate. The existing U.S. consulate in the city could house elements of the embassy, including the ambassador. As well, there is the pied-à-terre used by U.S. ambassadors when they conduct government business in West Jerusalem.
In technical terms the move could be easy. President Trump does not need congressional approval. In 1995, Congress adopted a resolution calling on the president to move the embassy. But each presidency since has used the prerogative granted to it to delay implementation, a convenient dodge that most legislators were happy with. The current waiver expires this June. Mr. Trump could simply abide by the congressional resolution.
Canada had its own experience on this very question when Joe Clark promised during the 1979 election campaign to move the Canadian embassy from Tel Aviv, chiefly in response to domestic lobbying and also by then-Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. The day after Mr. Clark was sworn in as prime minister, he reiterated his intention, saying he would be looking to bureaucrats for advice on logistics, not policy.
The swift reaction from the Arab world was anger and a sense of betrayal. Sanctions were threatened and would likely have been imposed. The Canadian business community lobbied hard for the government to ditch the move, as did the Carter administration in Washington. The prime minister, caught in a vise, was eager to find a way out. He appointed former Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield as his representative to deal with the situation. (I was Mr. Stanfield's executive assistant.)
After a six-week, and sometimes-stormy, tour of the Middle East, Mr. Stanfield reported that the move would be ill-advised for a host of political, economic and security reasons. Several fair-minded Israelis warned senior staff at our embassy that Canadians would be physically at risk.
It is not likely that the Trudeau government will follow in Mr. Trump's footsteps, particularly if chaos results from a U.S. relocation. A Canadian move would sabotage any hope of a Canadian seat on the UN Security Council, one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's most vaunted foreign policy ambitions.
The White House appears to be assuming that the Iranian nuclear issue dominates thinking in the Arab world right now, and that it would accept the embassy's move. This will not necessarily be the case. Relocation will be seen as endorsing the Israeli occupation of Arab East Jerusalem and of sanctioning Israeli settlements and their land confiscations on the West Bank. Relocation would signal the end of the two-state solution.
The White House fails to appreciate that the move would not just be an Israeli-Palestinian issue, with the Palestinian Authority ultimately accepting the inevitable. East Jerusalem and its holy places, particularly the Sacred Esplanade, has deep religious and emotional significance for all Muslims (as it has for Jews). Reaction may be tempered due to the concern of some countries that too vigorous opposition will negatively affect their relations with the new administration. But the "Arab street" will not let the relocation pass unnoticed. Jordan and Egypt will be particularly affected.
Former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry warned in his last weeks that relocation could lead to "an absolute explosion," including among the approximately 1.2 million Palestinians who carry Israeli citizenship. Extremists will be empowered. The security of Americans in the region will be at risk. Terrorism will grow.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will take full advantage of Mr. Trump's support. He informed his cabinet this past Sunday that he has decided to lift all restrictions on Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, and that the previously delayed building of 560 housing units will proceed. There will be more to come.