Update: As of yesterday evening, it appeared that the President would in fact sign another six-month waiver of the law requiring the US embassy to be in Jerusalem but that he would “declare” (I assume the article really means “recognize”) that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. Who knows if that’s the final view, so this post may be subject to further updates, which will be in the comments.

President Trump has told Palestinian President Abbas and King Abdullah II of Jordan of his intention to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It’s too soon to tell what exactly the President means. Is a move imminent? Was President Trump just trying to stir the pot as though the Middle East were a reality TV show where drama drives ratings? But let’s not make this a post about the President. Let’s look at the substance.

There is no plausible solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict that does not result in Jerusalem as the capital of Israel except for the “from the river to the sea” one-state solution that would mean the end of the Jewish state. So what the President has signaled is not just a recognition of what is an obvious fact—that Jerusalem is, in fact, the capital of the State of Israel—but a recognition of something that everyone who claims to want a peace deal knows will be included in the peace deal.

  • “But you’re prejudging the outcome of the negotiations!” The United States has always treated the status of Jerusalem as a final status issue to be negotiated between the parties. So why should the United States recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital now? Well, what is the status of the negotiations between the parties? Israel has said for years that it wants direct negotiations without preconditions. The Palestinians have said for years they want direct negotiations, but only if Israel meets certain preconditions. Of these, the main problem seems to be a precondition that the two sides “will agree on a specific timetable for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.” It’s not clear to me precisely what this means, but borders are a key issue that the United States says should be negotiated between the parties, so I think the criticism carries little weight. In other words, I don’t see how you have standing to complain about prejudging issues that are to be decided in negotiations if you say that the other side must concede issues that are to be decided in negotiations before the negotiations even start!

    Let me add that presumably the status of the western part of Jerusalem is not really up for debate, or at least it shouldn’t be. 1 The western part of the city is within the Green Line, i.e., Israel’s borders after its war of independence. Even those who say they want a return to the 1967 borders don’t want Israel to relinquish western Jerusalem. This does make me wonder what the fuss is about, since the US consulate, which is potentially the building the United States would convert into an embassy, is in West Jerusalem.

  • “But Jerusalem is a holy city to Muslims!” Agreed! And it’s a holy city to Christians. You might be excused for forgetting that it’s a holy city—the holy city, really—for Jews, given the Palestinians’ shameful refusal to acknowledge what everyone in the world knows. Let me quote for a moment, because you might not believe me if I merely paraphrased:

    Palestinian officials are demanding an apology from the new United Nations chief after he said it was “completely clear that the Temple that the Romans destroyed in Jerusalem was a Jewish temple.”

    Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also told Israel Radio in an interview Friday with its New York correspondent that “no one can deny the fact that Jerusalem is holy to three religions today,” including Judaism.

    On Sunday, Adnan al-Husseini, the Palestinian Authority’s Jerusalem Affairs minister, told the Chinese news service Xinhua that Guterres “ignored UNESCO’s decision that considered the Al-Aqsa mosque of pure Islamic heritage.” He also said Guterres “violated all legal, diplomatic and humanitarian customs and overstepped his role as secretary general … and must issue an apology to the Palestinian people.”

    Xinhua also spoke with an adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Ahmad Majdalani, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who said that Guterres’s comments “undermine the trustworthiness of the UN as a body that should support occupied peoples” and that Guterres “should clarify his remarks that give Israel a green light for more measures against Jerusalem.”

    You might also be excused for forgetting that prior to the Six Day War, Jews were denied access to the Western Wall by Jordan, while under Israeli rule the management of the Temple Mount itself has been left to the Islamic Waqf. And you might be excused for forgetting that Israel cooperates with the Waqf to ensure that only Muslims are allowed to pray on the Temple Mount itself (though Jewish religious opinion generally forbids Jews from going up to the Temple Mount lest they accidentally set foot on the site of the ancient Holy of Holies).

  • “But Jerusalem is the future capital of the Palestinian state!” I hope that’s true! It seems to me that at the end of the day, the two parties are going to have to find a way to share Jerusalem. That’s going to require hard compromises and creative thinking on both sides. We haven’t seen any sort of clear statement from the Trump Administration, but presumably recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital does not preclude establishment of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem as part of the final status negotiations. I hope that President Trump’s announcement, when it comes, will not alter the status quo regarding the US view on Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem after the Six Day’s War, which is clearly one of the very fraught issues that the parties themselves will have to work out. I have to say that I don’t really understand what the Palestinians say about the religious centrality of Jerusalem for them in light of the little I know or think I know about Islam (and I recognize that not all Palestinians are Muslims—some are Christians), but I accept that they say what they say with sincerity, and so Israel will have to find a way to accommodate them in negotiations if there is ever to be a deal.
  • “But if you do this, the Palestinians will have Days of Rage and violence will follow!” This is the heart of the matter. I described this as the “Arab World freakout hypothesis” in my post on the Zivatofsky case, the case about whether an Israeli born in Jerusalem had the right to have his place of birth recorded as “Israel” in his US passport. Yes, this is a serious concern, but it’s a practical concern. It’s probably the number one reason to suggest that the Trump Administration should cool it. I think if I were President I would want to maintain the status quo, precisely to avoid “Days of Rage,” violence, and even danger to Americans abroad. But in principle, it’s crazy to give weight to this kind of heckler’s veto. If the answer to the Israel/Palestine conflict is to do whatever avoids “days of rage,” or at least if the world announces that that’s the answer, then the Israelis ought to pack it in and decamp for Birobidzhan or somewhere.

So in short: the fear of Palestinian violence is real, and it would be prudent to delay a move, to maintain the status quo, so as to avoid needless violence. That said, as a matter of principle, I think there is a strong case for recognizing what everyone already knows, which is that Jerusalem is and is going to remain the capital of the Jewish state.

You may be interested in reading my prior post on last year’s Security Council resolution on West Bank settlements.

Notes:

  1. The US position is that no one is recognized as sovereign over any part of Jerusalem at present. And it’s a fair to criticize the Trump administration for changing US policy on this important question, at least without consulting expert foreign policy opinion. That said, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians think that Jerusalem should be a corpus separatum or an international city at the end of the day, and so I don’t see much weight in this point.