Romanian politicians spar over proposed move of embassy to Jerusalem

Romanian politicians spar over proposed move of embassy to Jerusalem
Move was announced without consultations with the presidency a few days before the US is due to open its embassy in Jerusalem. / Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia
By Iulian Ernst in Bucharest April 23, 2018

Relocating Romania’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem at this stage would constitute a breach of international law, President Klaus Iohannis warned on April 20, after the ruling coalition’s leader announced the move literally overnight as a fait accompli.

The plan — outlined by Social Democratic Party (PSD) leader and the president's main political rival Liviu Dragnea on a television show on April 19 — is highly controversial given the UN resolution condemning the US decision to move its own embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Washington’s move also faced the opposition of the European Union, of which Romania is a member. 

Just days before the new US embassy is due to open, Dragnea announced on April 19 that the Romanian government has already signed a memorandum on moving the country’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In a measured response to Dragnea’s statement, Iohannis stressed that the president is the only one vested with making Romanian foreign policy decisions and is the representative of Romania abroad, in accordance with the constitution. The presidency has not been previously informed or consulted on the government’s approach, Iohannis added.

“[T]his decision is not based on solid and comprehensive evaluations. Such a relocation can only be done after a very close analysis that takes into account all its consequences and foreign policy implications,” he explained.

As well as major foreign policy implications, the government’s plan holds a significant internal policy dimension as well. With his unexpected statement, ruling coalition leader Dragnea apparently expected the president to take a radical position in one way or another. However, Iohannis maintained his moderate (too moderate, some of his supporters believe) tone and left the door open for negotiations both at home and as part of international process.

Iohannis considers that the Romanian government’s initiative “may possibly, at most, represent the beginning of an evaluation process on the matter, which can only be completed when the negotiations on the Middle East Peace Process have been concluded, since the status of Jerusalem is a central theme of it. This status cannot be established until a direct and final agreement between the parties has been concluded.”

Romania’s position in the Arab-Israeli conflict has been constantly neutral since the situation escalated dramatically at the end of the 1960s, but the dispute between the EU and the US over the status of East Jerusalem makes this stance increasingly difficult. In the past decade, the country has managed to accommodate its role of staunch US ally in the region (it followed the US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and hosted a US military base beside Nato facilities) with that of an EU member state. 

The status of Jerusalem became subject of international disputes particularly after the six-day war in 1967, when Israel took control of Eastern Jerusalem (including the walled Old City in which most holy places are located) and broke the Israeli-Arab settlement agreement reached after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war under UN mediation. Since then, the UN considers East Jerusalem to be part of the occupied Palestinian territory, which also includes West Bank. Israel formally designated the whole city as its capital in 1980.

In 1995, the US Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act which declared the statement of policy that "Jerusalem should be recognised as the capital of the State of Israel. But it was only in 2017, that US President Donald Trump's administration officially recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. 

The European Union's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has emphasised that all governments of EU member states are united on the issue of Jerusalem, and reaffirmed their commitment to a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Czech Republic and Hungary prevented a formal statement on the behalf of the 28 EU states, though the two countries, besides Romania, Latvia and Croatia, had abstained from endorsing the UN Resolution against the US.

Joining the US in moving its embassy to Jerusalem despite the recommendations of the EU foreign policy head would still formally not breach any of the EU’s decisions. But it would stir serious controversy over Romania’s position in the EU, particularly as it would join the position countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic where Euroscepticism and illiberalism are on the rise. Secondly, such a move would force the country’s diplomats to re-orient the position that has been consolidated over the past 60 years and brought benefits in the form of good relations with both Arab nations and Israel.