Washington Wednesday: U.S embassy in Jerusalem

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 16th of May, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s episode of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington and today is Washington Wednesday.

The U.S. embassy is now open in Jerusalem. U.S. and Israeli officials on Monday celebrated the relocation of the embassy from Tel Aviv.

Vice-President Mike Pence represented the White House at the dedication ceremony, noting the event took place “almost exactly 70 years to the minute from the rebirth of the Jewish state.” 

PENCE: We gather here to celebrate nothing less than a miracle of history; the day when the Jewish people ended the longest exile of any people anywhere, and reclaimed a Jewish future and rebuilt the Jewish state. 

President Trump did not travel for the dedication. His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner represented the first family at the ceremony. But the president did record a video message to the Jewish people. 

TRUMP: Congratulations, it’s been a long time coming. Almost immediately after declaring statehood in 1948, Israel designated the city of Jerusalem as its capital, the capital the Jewish people established in ancient times.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the president for having the courage to make the move in the face of harsh criticism from world leaders.

After the ceremony, the French Foreign Ministry released a statement saying the embassy move—quote—“contravenes international law and in particular the resolutions of the security council and the UN general assembly.”

Both the White House and the prime minister have repeatedly brushed aside international criticism. And Netanyahu once again pushed back against the claims of some world leaders that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will make Middle East peace harder to achieve. 

NETANYAHU: The truth and peace are interconnected. A peace that is built on lies will crash on the rocks of Middle Eastern realities. You can only build peace on truth, and the truth is that Jerusalem has been and will always be the capital of the Jewish people, the capital of the Jewish state. 

The relocation came five months after President Trump announced his decision to move the embassy. Reaction to his announcement on Capitol Hill was largely split along party lines. But two decades earlier, Republicans and Democrats were almost entirely united on the matter.

It was not Trump who declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel. Congress did that in 1995 when it overwhelmingly passed the bipartisan Jerusalem Embassy Act, which called for relocating the embassy to Jerusalem. Only 37 members of the House and just five senators objected to that bill and it became law without a presidential signature in November 1995.

But the law did allow the president to issue and reissue 6-month waivers on “national security” grounds. And every 6 months for more than 22 years, presidents, Republican and Democrat alike, renewed that waiver. That was, until President Trump allowed the law to finally take effect last year.

And joining us now with more insight on the meaning of the embassy move is Mindy Belz, WORLD Magazine senior editor.

Mindy, first of all, we mentioned that presidents from both parties have continued to defer the embassy move for more than 20 years now. Why?

MINDY BELZ, SENIOR EDITOR: I think because they always had a reason they could tie the deferment to. I mean, if you think for instance about President George W. Bush. He was preoccupied post-9/11 with other parts of the Middle East. President Obama, preoccupied with trying to get a nuclear deal with Iran and every decision we can now look back and every decision he made in terms of Middle East policy was a decision not to jeopardize that. And so every president could find a reason not to do it. What they were doing, though, is making the longstanding U.S.-Israeli partnership take a backseat to these other issues in the region. And I think a lot of people–and what we’re increasingly seeing–is that a strong U.S.-Israeli partnership is actually kind of crucial to resolving some of these other difficult things. We– In many ways, we have so much in common with Israel and Israel, whether you agree or disagree with everything that Israel does, you cannot deny that Israel is the most Western-friendly powerhouse situated in this very, very, very troubled region.

What is the upside and downside of this move — let’s start with the upside.

BELZ: Well, the upside is pretty immediate. The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, is located there. It is for all intents and purposes the actual seat of the Israeli government and so having our embassy there makes sense, just like it does everywhere else in the world. The downside is that it does stoke the hostilities that are always kind of threatening to boil over. And we saw that in Gaza this week. I mean, we have to keep in mind Israel is home to 8 million Jews, but it’s also home to 2 million non-Jews. And I would argue that paying attention to that demography, no matter what we think of Palestinian leadership, of Palestinian issues giving rise to terrorism, and all of that, that paying attention to demography in the region is so important and in Israel in particular.

Mindy, we’ve seen a very positive response from many Christian leaders thus far to this move. Is this a move that Christians should celebrate?

BELZ: Well, I think the emphasis that we’ve, that Christians put on what’s happening here as sort of a triumph for Christianity. I think that’s mistaken. This is a political move. Modern Israel is not exactly ancient Israel. And more to the point, the affluent Dallas megachurch of Robert Jeffress who gave the prayer at yesterday’s transfer, could not be more different than the situation for churches in the Middle East. You think about his First Baptist Church, they spent $130 million on a massive renovation that covers six blocks in downtown Dallas. The tiny church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, you know, considered the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, they struggled to spend $4 million on a recent renovation to that 12th century church. This is very different. And I think that because the situation is so fragile in Israel, in the West Bank, in Gaza where there are about a thousand Christians trying to hold on against a jihadist kind of leadership in Gaza, the situation for Christians in this part of the world is so fragile that I think we should not be conflating the way that we do, and we should not be using this as a moment of sort of Christian triumph. It might be a great day for American evangelical leaders who support President Trump, I’m just not sure that it’s a great day for the gospel of Jesus, the man from Nazareth. It’s a political move and we should see it that way.

Now, reaction has been largely negative, but not everyone has reacted negatively, including some countries in the Middle East. What has stood out the most to you thus far about the global reaction to this move?

BELZ: Well, I think there’s a seismic shift going on that we aren’t hearing much about in the United States and that is that with the rise of Iran, Iran’s growing influence in Syria, growing movement in Iraq, and now some uncertainty over what happens next, post nuclear deal with the United States, we’re starting to see Gulf nations, a number of nations in the Arab world, actually move closer to Israel. That is a remarkable thing. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are two countries that have made public overtures and the absence of criticism of this move from many Arab nations is really striking. And so I think there was a lot of ceremony, there was a lot of huffing and puffing on both sides about this moving the embassy, but I think moving forward we’re going to see that it marks the beginning of sort of new relationships in this part of the world and in some ways it will be for the good.

Mindy, we heard a little earlier in the program about the UN’s harsh response to Israel’s response to the protesters in Gaza, some of whom were themselves violent. But speaking to that event and even more broadly—because this not the first time the UN has criticized Israel’s response to Palestinian threats—does the the UN have a point here? Or is Israel well within its rights? Or is there truth on both sides?

BELZ: Well, there is some truth on both sides. There’s no question that Israel has a right to defend its borders. One of its most contested borders is the border with Gaza. But we’ve seen it defend its borders with Syria, keep in mind, also. And no different for the southern border with Gaza where the Hamas leadership, I mean, we can now — we’ve seen on Facebook, in fact, that they were issuing calls and invitations to people to come and to set up this march and these protests, to bring weapons, to make an issue. And as long as Gaza is under the thumb of Hamas, this is going to be a regular feature. And I think it’s tragic and we need to say that clearly that it’s tragic when it costs 58 lives. It’s tragic that Israel was put in a position where it’s forced to use snipers and live ammunition because of the breeches that were happening at this security fence. But, at the same time, as long as there are terrorists over there who are threatening Israel, I don’t know that we can second guess them on taking these steps to protect their people. Keep in mind these are just miles apart. The territory there is so tightly entwined and Israel is taking the steps it needs to keep those borders safe.

Okay, Mindy Belz, Senior Editor of WORLD Magazine. Mindy, thanks so much!

BELZ: Thanks for having me.

(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit) A sign on a bridge leading to the U.S. Embassy compound ahead the official opening in Jerusalem, Sunday, May 13, 2018. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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