I’m an Israeli, a Zionist and an orthodox Jew. I admit—I am conflicted about the Trump administration’s plan to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And I shouldn’t be. There is no question that this is a long overdue step. But the timing, and the potential for harsh reactions which may harm U.S., and perhaps even Israeli, interests, while promoting those of our enemies, is problematical.
In 1947, under the UN Partition Plan, Jerusalem was supposed to be a “corpus separatum,” and be placed under international regime, uncontrolled by either the Jewish state or the Arab state, which were supposed to come into being. That plan was never implemented: it was rejected by the Arab rulers; Israel declared itself a state as the British left, with Jerusalem as its capital (for the next 19 years, it was sovereign only over the larger, Western part of the city) and was admitted as a member state to the UN in 1949. Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital for close to 70 years. Whoever wants to meet our President, our Prime Minister, our Supreme Court, our Parliament must come to Jerusalem. Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. So did King Hussein of Jordan, when he attended Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s funeral at our national cemetery at Mount Herzl.
But the international community has lived for 70 years with the fiction that the status of Jerusalem is unclear and subject to the terms of a future peace settlement. That is why all foreign embassies are in Tel Aviv and why when foreign diplomats talk about the Israeli government, some of them say “Tel Aviv,” the way they say “Moscow” or “New Delhi” or “Abuja” (or, for that matter, “Taipei”). Because over sixty years ago, it was thought that the political geography west of the Jordan was fluid and that something might soon change. In addition, after Israel passed the “Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel” in 1980, declaring that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel,” the world’s foreign offices, and the UN, decided that recognizing the fact of Jerusalem being Israel’s capital meant recognition of the “Occupation” as well. This is a fair cop, but doesn’t really explain why West Jerusalem was never recognized as Israel’s capital. The simple answer is that the international community is at this point holding back recognition of Israel’s capital as a potential quid pro quo for concessions by Israel in the future.
I think that it’s an aberration that Israel’s closest and most powerful friend and ally, the United States, has been unwilling to step up and cut through the crap for so long, and that this anomaly should be corrected as soon as feasible. The fact that every six months for twenty years, the “time wasn’t right” for the State Department to honor the wishes of the majority of Americans and a strong bipartisan majority of the legislative branch—and instead had the president ask for a waiver saying that a suspension of the law written by Congress mandating the move of the embassy “is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States”—is nothing short of bizarre. Is the fact that in 1996 it looked like there might soon be a further accord between Israel and the Palestinians (remember, we already have two from 1993 and 1995), so that the Congress “authorize[d] the President to suspend [the implementation of the legislation] for six months (with possible subsequent six-month extensions” for the above-mentioned national security interests, still relevant today?
Inertia is a powerful force. It’s never going to be the “right” time. For those who don’t want to do the right thing—bring American policy in line with American values—or are afraid of the repercussions, there will always be a reason not to do something.
But . . . we have a saying in Israel: “don’t be right, be smart,” and this is why I am conflicted. Because timing is everything.
Because the Muslim world is divided as never before. Blocs have formed due to the civil war in Syria, and there is a bloc which is close to the West, and closer to Israel than ever before. Under the surface, and increasingly, on the surface as well. Past experience shows us that of the very few issues which can unify Muslims, and of the many which can inflame the Muslim street, one of the most powerful is a perceived threat to Jerusalem and to Al Aqsa. Arab governments and publics think in terms of conspiracies. The U.S., and the Trump administration, has no credit saved up in the Arab World and does not seem to be planning this step as a sweetener in a broader process. Putting the spotlight on Jerusalem at this stage—even if there is no operational result for years, in terms of construction of an embassy—is problematical. It puts the “good guys”—Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt—on the spot, and they are already warning about the consequences. It will further weaken Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his struggle with Hamas, which bludgeons him with his continued willingness to engage with Israel and the U.S. administration. It also could provide a strong following wind to the ships of Israel’s enemies—Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Turkey, and the jihadi universe.
Past Israeli governments have spitballed solutions which would square this circle (and lost elections, largely for this reason). One of those solutions, that the Palestinian capital would be in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis, was reportedly mooted recently by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; it was rejected by Palestinians in the past. Russia, by the way, recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital back in April 2017, while saying that the future capital of Palestine will be in East Jerusalem and that it had no intention of moving its embassy out of Tel Aviv. But no one threatened “punishing” Russia, or harming Russian interests in the Middle East, as a result; they wouldn’t dare. However, recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while leaving open the question of East Jerusalem, won’t fly in the American political constellation (though the same constellation can mitigate, since the Congress may not put President Trump’s feet to the fire, to start moving the embassy soon).
Israel’s capital has been and will always be in Jerusalem. Israel’s capital is not and never has been Tel Aviv. The diplomatic world is sometimes a bizarro world. We are a strong country. So is the United States. I applaud President Trump’s willingness to rectify the U.S. position on the Jerusalem issue.
But we don’t need the United States’ validation, though it would be nice to have it. We don’t need anyone to tell us where our capital is, and no one can. And I don’t want Americans to say that because of Israel, American lives are in danger. It is nice to think that this fear of bad people doing bad things in response should not prevent states from doing the right thing. But in an imperfect world, it often does.