Conflicted over Trump’s Jerusalem Announcement

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.

I admit—I am conflicted. And I shouldn’t be.

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Afghanistan Again: What’s Different This Time

On August 21, President Donald Trump outlined his strategy for U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. While fully admitting his reluctance to increase current levels of support for the Afghan government and army, the president identified America’s core interests there. The “honorable and enduring outcome” that he mentioned in the speech is open to multiple interpretations, but the risk of a rapid withdrawal is not. It would lead to the collapse of the country’s central authority, thereby expanding fallow soil for global terror networks’ operations. Politically, the stakes are high. Significant gains against the Taliban and cohorts in Afghanistan would give Trump’s record a boost. After this speech, the fruits of victory or the spoils of defeat in Afghanistan rest squarely on Trump’s shoulders.

Aware that he is among the majority of Americans weary of this war, Trump proceeded to cite what will be different from past administrations. The U.S. will not publicly release timetables or air plans for adversaries’ consumption. It will hold the Afghan government accountable through a “conditions-based approach.” The U.S. will integrate “all instruments of American power . . . toward a successful outcome.” The Pakistani government in Islamabad will find that sponsorship or even tacit support for the Taliban and related entities will come with ever-greater political and financial burden. Washington will also push the Indian government in New Delhi to increase their economic and development assistance.

It is clear that Trump and his advisers have learned from the Obama administration’s failures in Afghanistan. Actions such as publically committing to timetables and trumpeting battlefield intentions bore tragic consequences, as the Taliban leadership, foot soldiers, and their backers settled in to wait out Western political timetables. The past two administrations’ reluctance to exert greater pressure on the Pakistani establishment has shown how little carrots alone can earn east of the Durand Line. Despite concerns that greater Indian involvement may hinder more than help by potentially antagonizing Pakistan, Afghanistan needs a strong regional actor that can help balance its neighbors’ often competing interests.

But do these changes amount to a new strategy? After all, haven’t we been employing “all instruments of American power” for the past 16 years? Americans witnessed a massive surge of tens of thousands of their soldiers that didn’t bring the war’s end; what difference will a re-deployment of several thousand make? Talk of greater accountability in Kabul has led to few tangible results. To some, the president’s “strategy” may seem simply as a modified “approach” to “obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”

What’s Different This Time Around?

This administration is showing respect for lessons learned. To date, there is no planned surge of tens of thousands of soldiers, as the Afghans themselves will be waging war on the frontlines. President Trump did not mention a civilian strategy in his remarks, underlying his assertion that “nation building” is off the table. While Trump expressed hesitancy to order Americans to continue fighting in Afghanistan, he unequivocally campaigned on effectively fighting terrorism. With the counsel of a number of generals absent in the previous administration, he’s doing just that, regardless Congressional support or skepticism. And Pakistan, it appears, is a state relation to be managed, distinct from a partnership based on “mutual interests, [and] mutual respect” as envisioned by Obama.

Second, Hamid Karzai is no longer in charge of Afghanistan. The ex-president managed the most remarkable feat of cowling the international community into possibly incalculable investments of money and manpower while effectively denying them any genuine say in the country’s political management. Consequently, international calls to stem systemic cronyism and take a stand against corruption went unheeded by Karzai. Accountable to personal networks and political expediency over the Afghan people, he effectively fanned the flames of Taliban propaganda and anti-government sentiment. This happened in part due to the then-surplus of international goodwill towards the Afghan people and Karzai’s fundamental misconception that the U.S. saw Afghanistan as prime geopolitical real estate.

Not so today. The international community’s priorities have moved on. Meanwhile, the Taliban and terror groups either control or are present in vast swathes of Afghan territory, placing the elected government in Kabul in palpable jeopardy. Since 2001, Afghanistan has depended on foreign aid for 70% of its annual budget. The national unity government (cobbled together by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014) is hardly united and dysfunctions accordingly. While insurgent control continues to grow, the current government is nowhere near completing the agreed-upon electoral reforms and schedules, much less the roadmap to a new constitution. Encouragingly, President Ashraf Ghani and Prime Minister Abdullah Abdullah together boast years of experience in Washington, which when combined could lead to clearer, effectively mutual relations compared to those mercurial years under Karzai. This renewed U.S. engagement in Afghanistan is an opportunity for genuine cooperation towards our common goal of denying terrorists sanctuary there.

Third, the Trump administration is set to push Pakistan harder than the previous administrations. It would be disingenuous to argue that the Taliban would pose the threat that they do (if even still exist) were it not for Pakistan’s willful harbor of and aid to various insurgent groups. Islamabad has yet to effectively change course on this policy. Continued decreases in aid—specifically of the military variety—together with a review of the country’s status as a non-NATO ally can help to realign the rudder towards more stable ports.

The fear of having an Indian-allied adversary to its west makes Pakistani interests in having a friendly and reliable government in Kabul respectable. Islamabad’s nearly dogmatic distrust of New Delhi and its desire to have a compliant government in Kabul complicate part of Trump’s plan. Current relations between Pakistan and India have led to skepticism about Trump’s solicitation of more pronounced involvement from India, which could be a potential leveraging point in U.S. relations with Pakistan’s leadership. Nonetheless, there is no regional solution without New Delhi any more than there is without Islamabad or other Eurasian actors. Indeed, as the U.S. footprint erodes, direct support for the Taliban has only increased from Tehran and Moscow, categorically demonstrating the extent of their own interests in who governs Afghanistan.

Last, herein lies one of the greater—and newer—threats to a sustainable resolution of the conflict. A decade ago, the road to peace primarily went eastward from Kabul. This is no longer the case. Today’s resurgent Russia and regionally emboldened Iran cannot be consigned as diplomatic afterthoughts vis-à-vis the Afghan war. These countries have provided cash and arms to elements of the Taliban, as well as significant funds to various political and religious actors to forward agendas often at odds with the elected government. Both share common goals of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a base for Islamic extremists in Central Asia and minimizing American presence in the region. Peace negotiations without due representation of their concerns would be short, as the likely response would be the disruptive mobilization of local spoilers.

With these issues in mind, we are left with one component of the president’s strategy that hasn’t changed: the full use of American military, diplomatic, and economic power. Trump asserted that “we are not nation-building again.” A few years ago, a senior Pentagon official told me that this was never U.S. policy (My follow-up review of official public statements confirmed this). Call it what you will; however, if the U.S. is to exercise all its powers towards a successful endgame in cooperation with a more accountable government in Afghanistan, shoring up its floundering governmental institutions is unavoidably necessary. And as daunting a task as this will be, it is not Panglossian to envision a better-fortified foundation for a democratic Afghan state. After the U.S. shores up these domestic weaknesses, we can then let the Afghans build their nation up from there. In my view, that would qualify as an honorable and enduring outcome.

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