Coalition Whip: Embassy Move Not ‘Do or Die’ for Prime Minister

YERUSHALAYIM -
Netanyahu, nationality, Israel, Jewish
Coalition chairman MK David Bitan (R) with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Although Binyamin Netanyahu would certainly not oppose an American decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim, the prime minister “is not prepared to commit political suicide” over the matter by turning it into a cause célèbre, said coalition chairman David Bitan.

Speaking to the newly inaugurated political channel of the Israel Broadcasting Corporation, which took to the airwaves Monday morning, MK Bitan told interviewers that “we aren’t willing to pay a political price for such a move. Anything Israel seeks always comes with a price. The Americans are holding back the move, and apparently plan to use it as a bargaining chip.” Seen in that context, demanding that the embassy be moved might not be such a great idea. “We are not prepared to throw everything away for this issue.”

MK Bitan, like Prime Minister Netanyahu, on Sunday night was responding to comments made by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Asked in an interview about the President’s promise to move the embassy, Tillerson said that the U.S. needed to be “careful” when it came to such a move. “[T]he president has recently expressed his view that he wants to put a lot of effort into seeing if we cannot advance a peace initiative between Israel and Palestine,” Tillerson said. “And so I think in large measure the president is being very careful to understand how such a decision would impact a peace process.”

Many in Israel took that to mean that the decision was now off the table. In response, Netanyahu said in a statement on Sunday that “Israel’s position has been stated many times to the American administration and to the world. Moving the American embassy to Yerushalayim would not harm the peace process. On the contrary, it would advance it by correcting an historical injustice and by shattering the Palestinian fantasy that Yerushalayim is not the capital of Israel.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett urged Netanyahu to be more aggressive in his response. “I call on the Prime Minister to make it clear to the Americans that we expect the administration to move the embassy and recognize Israel’s sovereignty over Yerushalayim,” Bennett told Channel Two. “Just like the world’s embassies are found in Washington, the capital of the United States, so must embassies be located in Yerushalayim, our 3,000-year-old capital. It must be clear: Any peace treaty that is based on the division of Yerushalayim is a non-starter.” In response, Netanyahu’s office said that it “congratulates Minister Bennett for his deep study of the press release we sent out, and is able to quote it as if he wrote it.”

A report last week said that President Trump has decided not to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim at this time. According to the report, President Trump has decided to sign a waiver postponing the embassy’s move by at least six months, as all his predecessors have done since 1995, when a law that required the embassy to be moved was passed.

President Trump promised to move the embassy several times during his presidential campaign, but reports in December and January said that he was “reconsidering” the idea. In an interview with Fox News in late January, Trump said that it was “too early” to talk about moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim, further feeding speculation that Trump was backing away from his commitment to move the embassy, which he repeated several times during the campaign. With that, President Trump said that relations between Israel and the United States were back on track, with the two countries once again working in tandem on policy. The relationship, Trump said, “is repaired. It was repaired the minute I spoke to Netanyahu” after he was elected. “We have a good relationship with Israel.”