WASHINGTON — Israel’s defense minister on Friday played down the centrality of moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, telling a gathering of the Saban Forum here that “It’s very important, but we have other issues.”
Several members of the Israeli coalition have hailed the election of Donald Trump as representing the best opportunity of seeing the US relocate its embassy to Jerusalem, and thus signaling recognition of Israeli claims to the city.
Whereas outgoing President Barack Obama on Thursday maintained a 20-year US policy of waiving legislation to move the embassy, thereby delaying its relocation for another six months, Trump promised on the campaign trail to “move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem,” and to do so “fairly quickly.”
But Liberman on Friday evening downplayed the significance of that pledge. “We’ve seen this promise [from US presidential candidates] in every election,” Liberman noted.
“We will wait and we will see, but I think [Trump’s statement] is a strong public commitment,” he said. But he stressed that “what is really crucial for us is to meet with a new administration about all our common policy, not just one issue, not only one point like the American embassy. It’s very important but we have other issues.”
Liberman listed “Iran and the Palestinian issue and settlements and Syria” as key topics to discuss with the incoming administration. “We have enough challenges all around Israel,” he added. “I think that it will be a mistake to take the embassy as the focal point. It is crucial to move forward with the whole agenda, and we have many items on our agenda, and the embassy will be one of the points.”
Noting a “de facto freeze” in construction at West Bank settlements, Liberman said that “the main reason is not because we really don’t want to build homes in Judea and Samaria or Jerusalem, but because we had disagreements with the American administration.”
The key to the future of the settlements lies in “understandings with the United States, not only our desire,” he continued. “We’re not in a vacuum. For the past eight years it was a problem,” he added, describing construction over the pre-1967 lines as a “main source” of tensions between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations.
With Israeli politicians poised on Monday to begin the process of legislating the “Amona Bill,” Liberman also said that the legislation should be postponed until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government can meet with the incoming Trump administration.
“My proposal is to wait for the new administration and to create together with the administration a common policy,” Liberman said.
Built on private Palestinian land, the Amona outpost has been the subject of 15 years of court deliberations that finally ended in 2014 with a High Court of Justice order that it be demolished by December 25, 2016. Many legislators are seeking a means to outflank the court ruling, or at least to prevent the demolition of other outposts, but such efforts have been repeatedly stymied and have prompted legal objections including from the Israeli attorney general.
Most of the focus during the annual confab’s opening session was on Middle East policy in the incoming Trump administration.
The defense minister stressed that the international community “must put [Syrian President Bashar] Assad in his place,” and that the United States under Trump must take the initiative.
“From our point of view the United States is the biggest power in the world. It’s their responsibility. The time for splendid isolation was maybe a hundred years ago,” he argued, pushing back against statements made in the past by Trump and his supporters suggesting that the US should focus away from some of its international entanglements.
“It is impossible to speak about isolation,” Liberman continued, arguing that Trump’s position jibed with his own. “The president-elect speaks about military power, a strong army, a powerful US, and I think the biggest challenge here in the US is ISIS [Islamic State] also.”
Liberman stressed that if Trump hopes to reduce the risk posed by Islamic State to America, he must “start in the Middle East.”
He argued that the US must reassert its presence in the Syrian conflict as well.
“We hope that regarding Syria he will be active, and regarding the solutions, to speak frankly, it is impossible to achieve any solution without active American participation in this process. We need a strong America, we need an American active at least in our region, and I hope we will agree about a common vision regarding the future of the Middle East.”