At AIPAC, GOP candidates write a check that reality won’t cash

Republican presidential hopefuls grandly promised to scrap the Iran deal and move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, two ideas that won’t fly

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump waves at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. / AFP / SAUL LOEB
US Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump waves at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. / AFP / SAUL LOEB

Republican candidates made a lot of promises to pro-Israel activists at the AIPAC conference earlier this week, among them that the Iran nuclear deal will be gutted and the United States Embassy will be moved to Jerusalem. And all by January 21, 2017.

Now for a reality check: No. To all of it.

Israelis hoping to see the promises made in Washington actually come to fruition will be sorely disappointed, experts say, pointing to the need for bipartisanship to push anything through the American political system.

The fact that American politicians still wholeheartedly declare they will be the one to move the US embassy to Jerusalem is somewhat peculiar, since so many presidential hopefuls have vowed it before yet always failed to deliver on their promise.

“Believe me,” Donald Trump said a whopping 12 times during his speech, but even if you give credence to his other incredible claims — for instance that he studied the Iran deal in greater depth “than anybody else” — don’t believe him when he says he will move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel’s “eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, who is lagging far behind Trump in the primaries but still hopes to get the nod from Republican National Convention in July, made the same pledge. He went one step further and vowed to begin the moving process on his “very first day in office.” Many presidential candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, have promised the same, speaking to very same audience, Cruz acknowledged. “Here’s the difference: I will do it,” he said.

Many candidates have made this promise. Here's the difference… I will do it. #AIPAC2016

Posted by Ted Cruz on Monday, March 21, 2016

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of such declarations. Cruz, like other right-wing American politicians, is probably genuinely inclined to move the embassy to Jerusalem, and might actually believe that he will do so. The problem is that even the commander-in-chief of the most powerful nation on earth cannot makes such decisions all by himself, without taking into consideration his advisory council and many other important factors.

“Nobody is going to move the embassy,” said Amnon Cavari, an expert on American presidential politics at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “This is not a decision that depends on the personal preferences of the president. There is a status quo that has been maintained for a long time. Other countries have not moved their embassies, and it’s not going to happen with the US, either.”

John Kasich, the third Republican candidate still in the race, called Jerusalem Israel’s “eternal capital” but did not promise to move the capital. In his address to AIPAC, he also did not vow to cancel the Iran deal, but merely said he supports the “suspension of the US’s participation in the Iran nuclear deal in reaction to Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests” and that he would seek to immediately re-apply sanctions on Iran if the regime “violates one crossed T or one dot of that nuclear deal.”

Republicans have been vowing to move the embassy since 1972

Grand but unrealistic statements about Israel are nothing new at AIPAC conferences. In June 2008, then-senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama said, to raucous applause, that Jerusalem “must remain undivided.” He soon clarified — read: partially retracted — his statement.

In 2000, then-governor and presidential candidate George W. Bush told AIPAC that, “as soon as I take office I will begin the process of moving the US ambassador to the city Israel has chosen as its capital.”

But it didn’t start with Bush. The idea of moving the embassy to Jerusalem is at least 44 years old. It was bruited in 1972 by Gerald Ford, then the minority leader in Congress. President Richard Nixon opposed the proposal, but the Republican party included it in its platform for that year’s election. (It has been part of the party platform in at least the last five elections).

Ford, in his first press conference after being elected president in 1974, declared that he was no longer keen on moving the embassy from Tel Aviv. “Under the current circumstances and the importance of getting a just and lasting peace in the Middle East,” he said, “that particular proposal ought to stand aside.”

Yitzhak Rabin, who was then Israel’s ambassador to Washington, later asked Ford about the embassy issue. “In the Oval Office you view things differently than from the House of Representatives,” Rabin quoted Ford as replying.

The US Embassy in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Ori~/Wikimedia Commons/File)
The US Embassy in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Ori~/Wikimedia Commons/File)


The Republican candidates’ promises to cancel the agreement with Iran are likely to suffer the same fate as their predecessors’ vows to transfer the embassy.

“On the first day in office, I will rip this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal to shreds,” Cruz thundered at AIPAC. Trump similarly declared that his “number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran. (He later added that “at the very least, we must enforce the terms of the previous deal to hold Iran totally accountable.”)

But the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is formally known, is not a bilateral agreement between Washington and Tehran but was signed by Iran and six countries, which means that it would not be so easy to just cancel the pact, said Cavari, the IDC expert on US politics. The US dropping out of a multilateral agreement that took nearly two years to negotiate would severely damage Washington’s ability to gather future international coalitions about anything, he posited. “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Of course the Republican candidates also made promises that were just as pleasing to AIPAC conference goers but more realistic. They all vowed, for instance, to veto Palestine-related resolutions at the United Nations, to confront Iran over its non-nuclear regional aggression, to condemn Palestinian incitement, to fight the anti-Israel boycott movement, and so on.

But all these assurances, including rejecting Security Council resolutions seeking to impose terms on Israel, are pretty much consensus positions in US politics. Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, also pledged to “vigorously oppose” such a move.

Echoing her Republican rivals, the former secretary of state dubbed Iran an “extremist regime that threatens to annihilate Israel,” one whose “unacceptable” ballistic missile tests should be punished by “more sanctions” from the international community. She committed herself to resolving any difference of opinion with Jerusalem “quickly and respectfully,” and declared that Washington “should provide Israel with the most sophisticated defense technology so it can deter and stop any threat.”

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waves as she arrive to speak during the 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. (AFP / Jim Watson)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waves as she arrives to speak during the 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. (AFP / Jim Watson)

Clinton said many other things that were music to the ears of the AIPAC crowd, but two things she did not promise: to cancel the nuclear deal with Iran and to move the US embassy. In fact, in her speech she did not mention Jerusalem once.

All of this is not to say that a Republican president would not be “better” for Israel than a Democrat. While the judgment on this question really depends on what one thinks is good for Israel, the assessment among many in the pro-Israel community that Republicans are more staunch supporters is a truism. The ceaseless friction between the Obama administration and the current government in Jerusalem would appear to bolster the claim, to some extent, albeit for the time being. In the recent past, Israel has had relatively warm relations with a Democratic administration (that of Bill Clinton) and difficult ties with a Republican presidency (that of George H.W. Bush).

But whoever moves into the White House after January 20, and regardless of his or her views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel’s embassy will remain in Tel Aviv and the Iran deal will stay in place for the foreseeable future.

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