Eurovision’s recent official announcement that next year’s competition will indeed take place in Israel came after a few weeks of uncertainty spurred on by, among other things, the Argentinian national soccer team’s cancellation of a friendly match in Jerusalem. Even now, it is not clear as to where in Israel the song contest will take place, least of all if it will be held in the country’s contested capital.
That stands in stark contrast with a bold statement from Donald Trump back in December. When he announced that the United States would relocate its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognize the latter as Israel’s capital, the American president asserted that his administration, “took Jerusalem off the table, so we don’t have to talk about it anymore.” As with many of his claims, Trump’s suggestion that Jerusalem was suddenly a non-issue has proven erroneous. Even in areas where Israel has reaped benefits from the White House’s decision, such as the moving of some Latin American countries’ embassies, it is now clear that the Trump administration succeeded in making what was already a hyper-political subject even more contentious. As the initial festive atmosphere surrounding the embassy transfer fades, the Israelis are on track to suffer the consequences of an ill-conceived policy executed by a president prone to an extemporaneous style of governing. Far from taking Jerusalem out of the equation, Trump emphasized everything controversial about it and put the city’s status on the table for every otherwise apolitical event in the future.
In the period immediately following Trump’s announcement, Israelis and outside observers braced for the worst. The Shin Bet did record a sharp rise in terrorist incidents in the West Bank in December, but there was no large-scale Intifada-style outburst from the Palestinian side. The United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn the embassy move, but given the international forum’s historical anti-Israel tilt, the resolution failed to resonate with any relevant audience. Then came the embassy opening. While the whole affair was rightly criticized as partisan showboating and the presence of pastors John Hagee and Robert Jeffress, who have a history of anti-Semitic rhetoric, was deeply unsettling, it was a signal of unequivocal support for the Jewish state’s government that was greeted with near unanimous support across the Israeli political spectrum. For a fleeting moment, it seemed Israel would actually experience something of a diplomatic breakthrough. There was talk of the Philippines and some Eastern European countries relocating their embassies, and two Latin American countries actually did.
Of course, it has not been all smooth sailing since the embassy opened. The first major upset was the cancellation of the Argentina-Israel friendly soccer match earlier this month. The match was supposed to be held in Haifa, and was moved to Jerusalem at the insistence of Culture Minister Miri Regev. Palestinian soccer federation chief Jibril Rajoub led the push to pressure the Argentinian team into backing out. Rajoub claims he only opposed the game by dint of its new venue (Jerusalem). Whether you take Rajoub at his word (and there is certainly reason not to), it is true that the concerted effort to stop the match only started after Regev tried to switch locations. It is also true that major international entertainment events had been hosted in Jerusalem sans incident before the embassy move. As recently as last October, Israel played Spain in a World Cup Qualifier hosted in Jerusalem. The Argentina fiasco raised questions about next year’s Eurovision location. The contest was held in Jerusalem without any sort of major controversy in 1999. It is not that Jerusalem wasn’t controversial back then (nearly twenty years after Israel unilaterally annexed the eastern half of the city), but given America’s superpower stature, a U.S. policy on Jerusalem has far greater bearing than Israel’s unrecognized annexation. Although Eurovision officially confirmed that Israel will be the host country, Jerusalem’s prospects as a venue are unclear despite the government’s strong preference on the matter. The U.S. decision on Jerusalem prematurely forces the question about the city and makes outsiders choose a side.
It is tempting on the Israeli side to cite the supposed “positives” accrued from the move, namely the relocation of other countries’ embassies and the possibility that others will follow suit in the future. But no one should misread the message sent by Guatemala and Paraguay, the countries that have opened embassies to Israel in Jerusalem or are presently mulling such a decision; these too may be tied more to Trump and less so to Israel. Both play host to deeply religious populations who certainly feel emotional attachment to Jerusalem, but they are also countries that receive significant American aid and have reason to solicit goodwill from Washington. The administration had actually slashed the U.S. aid budget for Paraguay from $5 million to $400,000 for fiscal year 2017-2018, and moving the embassy could be an attempt to elevate Asuncion’s standing with the Trump White House. This is not dissimilar from the situation of the South Pacific islands which vote at the UN in lockstep with the United States and Israel and are in some ways politically and financially dependent on America (three are party to a long-term “free association” with the U.S.). The upshot from all of this is that future embassy moves to Jerusalem may say very little about the level of goodwill other countries share with Israel and more about how desperate they are to get in Donald Trump’s good graces. Rather than normalizing the city’s status within Israel, Trump’s embassy move made Jerusalem a political chip that incentivizes U.S. clients to align with a right-wing policy on Israel. A future administration could just as easily change course on Israel and reward countries for pulling their missions from the holy city.
Six months after President Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, the city is hardly off the table. If anything, the administration has guaranteed that it will be an ever more controversial subject, not just in the realm of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but also as athletes, artists, and other traveling acts consider whether to come to the city. Today, any major program in Jerusalem risks becoming a referendum on an unpopular decision from an unpopular American president.