Following President Trump’s historic declaration recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, West Bank and Gazan Arabs took to the streets in rage. They burned U.S. and Israeli flags. They cursed America, Israel and the Yahuds (Jews). Their imams cited verses from the Koran and the Hadiths about the usurpers and interlopers and the “descendants of apes and pigs.” In other words, it was business as usual for the Palestinians. Nothing had changed.
At the State Department too, it was business as usual. In a transparent effort to placate the Arab bloc, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the process of moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would take several years. Tillerson is said to have counseled Trump against recognition.
Then, at a Washington DC press briefing on December 7, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield was evasive when asked by AP journalist Matt Lee, “what country is Jerusalem in.” Satterfield acknowledged that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel but paradoxically could not say definitively that Jerusalem was located in Israel. Satterfield went on to note that consistent with current State Department policy, U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem would not be able to state their place of birth as “Israel” on their passports. The only options currently available to U.S citizens born in Jerusalem are to note either “Jerusalem” as their place of birth or if born prior to 1948, “Palestine.”
This then is the absurdity that the White House must contend with. It appears that the State Department, staffed with a cadre of career civil servants and employees of the diplomatic corps, is conducting its own foreign policy, one that deviates from the goals of the White House and undermines its objectives. This group is perhaps more fanatical in its opposition to the president’s historic declaration than some Arab leaders.
Their resistance is motivated by a myriad of reasons. Some simply hate Trump and this offers an opportunity to engage in obstructionism. Some are deeply anti-Semitic and their sympathies lie squarely in the Arab camp. Others view change and bold action as a threat and prefer the status quo. Whatever their motivations, they are working in concert to delay and obstruct the president’s bold new policy initiatives aimed at supporting a loyal ally and acknowledging reality while at the same time breaking the deadlock and reviving an anemic peace process based on a foundation of truth.
This isn’t the first time that the White House was confronted with such obstructionism from the State Department. In 1948, Secretary of State George C. Marshall vehemently opposed U.S. recognition of the nascent state of Israel and attempted to subvert President Harry Truman’s desire to extend diplomatic recognition. He told Truman that if Truman extended recognition, he would not be able to vote for him in the next presidential election. A statement like that represents a direct challenge to the president and is tantamount to a threat to resign. Ultimately, Truman took the morally correct path, disregarded Marshall’s protestations and extended de-facto recognition (de-jure recognition was extended in 1949) while Marshall continued to serve as Secretary of State.
The State Department’s current position as enumerated by Satterfield is also inconsistent with the will of Congress. In 2002, Congress passed the Foreign Relations Authorization Act. Section 214(d) of the FRAA states in relevant part “For purposes of the registration of birth, certification of nationality, or issuance of a passport of a United States citizen born in the city of Jerusalem, the Secretary shall, upon the request of the citizen or the citizen’s legal guardian, record the place of birth as Israel.”
In 2015, a divided Supreme Court struck down the law stating that Congress had overstepped its bounds when it passed the bill. Justice Kennedy, who issued the majority decision in Zivotofsky v. Kerry, stated that the power to recognize foreign nations rests with the executive branch of government and the ability to determine what a passport says is part of this power.
The Supreme Court’s ruling put the matter to rest temporarily but Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital revives the issue. The State Department will be hard pressed to defend its position in light of the new political reality.
While the State Department can obstruct, impede and delay, it is ultimately Trump who has the final say. He must demand progress reports from the State Department to ensure that those entrusted with the embassy move are taking the necessary steps to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in expeditious fashion. As for the passport issue, Trump can easily remedy this area of discord by issuing a clear and unambiguous directive to his secretary of state to permit U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem to list Israel as their birthplace on official documents.