U.S. president-elect Donald Trump might well make good on his pledge to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but that won’t put pressure on Canada to do the same, feels a former Canadian ambassador to Israel.
While former prime minister Stephen Harper “would have followed” an American move of the embassy to Jerusalem, Norman Spector said he doesn’t think Justin Trudeau would.
Besides, Trudeau will give Trump much more to worry about than the location of embassies, said Spector, Canada’s ambassador to Israel from 1992 to 1995.
Asked about the president-elect’s promise, made during his campaign for the White House, to re-locate the embassy to Jerusalem “fairly quickly,” Spector told The CJN: “I think Trump might do it. [But] I don’t think it means a lot for Canada. We’re going to be under enough pressure with the gap between Trump and Trudeau on much more substantive issues. I don’t see Canada changing its [Mideast] policy.”
Spector sees an opportunity for Trump, because the Muslim world is so divided, with Saudi Arabia needing American support. “Trump may actually get away with it. I think it might be real this time.”
The United States, he pointed out, has had a large consulate in east Jerusalem for years. “So there really is no argument for them not to have their embassy in west Jerusalem.”
Trump’s promise gained traction earlier this month when he nominated attorney David Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel. Friedman said he looked forward to working from “the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
The issue brought a sharp rebuke from the imam of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque and head of the Supreme Muslim Council, Sheikh Ekrima Sa’id Sabri, who said the move of the U.S. embassy would be “a declaration of war against Arabs and Muslims.”
CBC News reported that Trudeau declined to speculate on the potential fallout from Trump’s pledge, noting that the prime minister would not comment on “hypotheticals.”
Canada maintains a “representative office” to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and its embassy in Israel, like those of other countries, is in Tel Aviv. The last two countries to have embassies in Jerusalem – Costa Rica and El Salvador – both shifted them to Tel Aviv in 2006.
While Israel regards Jerusalem as its capital, the official position of most countries is that the contested city’s status must be determined through negotiations as part of a broader agreement between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours.
Moving an embassy to Jerusalem, critics say, sends a clear message of one-sided support for Israel.
Asked whether a shift of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem would pressure Canada to act, Chantal Gagnon, press secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, told The CJN: “We do not comment on such hypothetical questions. Canada and Israel share a steadfast friendship and strong economic and diplomatic relations. The bonds of friendship have united us for nearly 70 years and we look forward to the many ways we can strengthen an already strong relationship.”
Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, expressed similar sentiments.
“We prefer not to speculate on hypothetical events,” he told The CJN. “Our position has always been that the international community should recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. We look forward to one day seeing the Canadian embassy moved, which is why we regularly emphasize to our elected officials the fact that Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for millennia.”
Trump’s promise raises memories in this country of the same pledge by a former prime minister.
In April 1979, then-Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark, in an election campaign speech to the Canada-Israel Committee, promised to move Canada’s embassy to Jerusalem. “‘Next year in Jerusalem,’” he stated, “is a Jewish prayer which we intend to make a Canadian reality.”
After he became prime minister, the promise soon unravelled, as criticism from the business community and outrage from opposition Liberals were loud and clear. More ominous were predictions, and fears, of an Arab backlash, at a time when the Arab world was much more united than today.
A few weeks later, Clark announced the move would be deferred by a year.
By October 1979, he told the House of Commons that Canada would take no action on its Israeli embassy “until the status of Jerusalem is clarified within a comprehensive agreement between Israel and her Arab neighbours.”
In an interview with The CJN in the late 1990s, Clark conceded his promise had been rash, the result of a young leader’s inexperience.
Canada’s official position on Jerusalem hasn’t changed in decades. The city’s status “can be resolved only as part of a general settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute,” according to Global Affairs Canada.
Its website says that Ottawa recognizes neither Israel’s “unilateral annexation of east Jerusalem” nor “permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967,” – meaning the Golan Heights, the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and Gaza.
Israel conquered east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed the city in 1980, an act that was internationally condemned.
Once Trump decides to move the embassy to Jerusalem, Trudeau “would be subjected to crossfire,” said Prof. Emanuel Adler, the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Chair of Israeli Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs.
Trudeau would face three possibilities, Adler said: move the embassy, not move it, or procrastinate. “If I need to venture a guess, I will say No. 3.” But whatever he decides, it will be driven “much more by domestic issues, and to a lesser extent by his foreign policy beliefs, than by considerations to follow a common policy with the U.S.,” Adler said.
Trump was not the first presidential candidate to pledge that the U.S. embassy in Israel would be relocated. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made the same vows, only to backtrack later over concerns about prejudging the final outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.