On May 14, 2018, something incredible happened.
The United States finally opened our embassy in Jerusalem, 23 years after we first promised to do so.
This was an important moment for Israel. But it was just as important for America. It showed that we keep our word, stand with our allies and put our own interests and principles ahead of the world’s demands.
The day was a long time coming. In 1995, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which pledged to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This should not have been a controversial move. Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. America had located its embassy in the capital city of every other country, just not Israel.
But Republicans and Democrats alike ignored the Act. Even though it was passed by an overwhelming margin, three straight presidents declined to implement it. They were warned that the sky would fall if we moved our embassy. So, the leaders of the free world gave into fear and cowardice.
Even in 2017, it was not a foregone conclusion that America would fulfill its decades-old promise. Many of my colleagues in the Trump administration were strongly opposed to the idea. They warned that our allies would turn against us, Americans would be killed and war in the Middle East would quickly ignite.
Some of us knew better. Twenty-two years of the status quo hadn’t curbed Palestinian terrorism or brought the two sides closer to a peace agreement. Our unwillingness to act only made America look weak. A country that can’t fulfill a simple decades-old promise to an ally is a country no one respects. Everyone walks all over it.
Moving our embassy was ultimately about standing up for ourselves. No one—not the U.N., not our friends and certainly not our enemies—has the right to tell the United States where to put our embassy. After Donald Trump finally made the decision to implement the Act, I proudly vetoed a U.N. resolution criticizing the U.S. for doing so. I was the lone veto out of the 15-member Security Council. It was the first U.S. veto at the U.N. in nearly seven years.
In my speech following the veto, I explained, “Jerusalem has been the political, cultural and spiritual homeland of the Jewish people for thousands of years” and that America was acknowledging the obvious.
Just as importantly, I stood up to the critics, defended American sovereignty, and took the names of those who attacked us. As I warned, “The United States will remember this day in which it was singled out for attack in the General Assembly for the very act of exercising our right as a sovereign nation. … This vote will be remembered.”
For too long, America acted like an international doormat. We worried more about upsetting enemies than defending friends. We looked the other way when evil regimes committed unspeakable crimes. We convinced ourselves that playing nice would make the worst countries in the world play nice too.
They did not. All we did was embarrass ourselves.
Five years later, the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem is a proud symbol of American strength and the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship. It is also a reminder of how America can and must ignore the bullies and do what’s right—not least because it puts the bullies in their place.
How things have changed. Under President Joe Biden, America has gone into retreat. From the surrender in Afghanistan to the failure to deter Russia from invading Ukraine to putting partisan politics ahead of allies like Israel, Biden is listening to the same foolish ideas—often from the same foolish people—that I heard over and over before we moved the embassy to Jerusalem. They say that weakness is really strength, that inaction is really leadership.
It wasn’t then. It isn’t now. More than ever before, the United States needs to send the message that our friends can trust us, our enemies should fear us and we’ll do what’s right no matter who stands in the way. That is the lesson of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. It’s a lesson we need to remember, and then remind the world of it.