A Capital Idea
© Rabbi Robert L. Wolkoff
An astounding amount of nonsense has been written about President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Some have downplayed the decision as a mere political ploy, to shore up evangelical support for Roy Moore, or to build up support among right-wing Jews. Others have denigrated the decision based on the assumption that Trump is too ignorant, or too malevolent, to do anything right. The punditsphere has portrayed President Trump as a bumbling idiot who gave away the store and got nothing in return; or as a loose cannon, who (once again) made an impulsive decision that no one can understand.
The fact that the President has finally done what a nearly unanimous Congress demanded he do 20 years ago (otherwise, and in other non-Israel related contexts, known as “the will of the American people”) seems to have escaped notice.
In addition, the impression of Trump’s ignorance/bumbling/impulsiveness is fostered by the endless repetition of myths about the reality in the Middle East. Before addressing the essence of President Trump’s decision, some of these myths must be dispelled.
- This decision is “the nail in the coffin of the peace process.”
First of all, what peace process? The talking heads refer to the peace process as if it were moving with the speed of a runaway train. In fact, it moves slower than a herd of turtles, if it moves at all. Pretending there is a peace process allows the chattering classes to maintain their fantasy about the peace that’s just around the corner (if only Israel would make the right concessions), but it has nothing to do with reality.
Second, every time something happens in the Middle East that someone doesn’t like, it’s the nail in the coffin. In years past, we have heard that about:
Obama’s weapons deal; the PA decision to take Israel to the International Criminal Court; the PA Hamas unity pact; the Israeli law allowing confiscation of private Arab land; the 2nd Intifada; the Israeli law retroactively approving unauthorized settlements; the mere thought of demolishing Susiya (a not real Palestinian village); settlement building; the “wall”; the collapse of Kerry’s peace initiative; the election of Netanyahu; Israel’s refusal at Camp David to take responsibility for the Palestinian refugees; and, my personal favorite, Israel’s insistence on an end of conflict agreement. (Only Israel could be accused of putting a nail in the coffin of the peace process by demanding that at the end of the process there must be peace!).
Someone pointed out that at this point, there are more nails than wood in the peace process coffin.
All of this is foolishness. The second someone is willing to talk about a vaguely reasonable proposal, the peace process will begin again. And when no one is willing to discuss reasonable proposals, there is no peace process. It’s really not that complicated. And remember, in his statement Trump specifically mentioned that he was open to anything the parties agreed to, including the exact negotiated boundaries of Jerusalem.
- The second myth is that by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the U.S. lost its role as “Honest Broker.”
Imagine, a week from now, VP Pence shows up. The Palestinians make a big point of not meeting him. Probable. [In fact, they did, but Pence never even made the trip.]
Six months from now? A year from now? “We won’t meet with the U.S. since you recognized Jerusalem!?” This is absurd.
Did I mention $357 million direct aid to the Palestinian authority, and $355 million to UNWRA? That’s ¾ of a billion dollars. With a B. The U.S. is the single largest donor to the Palestinians. (In 2014, the U.S. gave more than the EU, Saudi Arabia, UK, and Sweden combined)
They’ll talk to us.
- Perhaps the biggest myth, propagated by Thomas Friedman among others, is that Trump threw away a bargaining chip for nothing.
The same bargaining chip that’s been held over Israel’s head for 70 years. 70. Some bargaining chip. How’s it been workin’ for ya?
But wait, there’s more.
The basis for this myth is another myth, the claim that Jerusalem is contested because the Palestinians claim the Old City of Jerusalem/East Jerusalem/”Arab East Jerusalem” (that’s what happens with ethnic cleansing) and therefore the status of Jerusalem needs to be negotiated? Right?
If this is all about East Jerusalem, please explain why U.S. policy denying Israel’s right to define its own capital has been in place since 1947, not 1967. The U.S. has challenged Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem since Israel’s birth—not East Jerusalem. West Jerusalem.
Why? Because anti-Semites in the State Department were vehemently opposed to Israel’s statehood, and they sensed—correctly—that Israel without Jerusalem would never be fully sovereign. After all, you can’t truly be a “free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem,” (as sung in Hatikvah) if you don’t control Zion and Jerusalem. They wanted to institutionalize Israel’s existence and character as tentative, and endlessly dependent, if not altogether temporary, with Jerusalem under permanent international control.
Now, moving beyond the myths, we can understand why Trump’s move, far from being a nail in the coffin of the peace process, is the best thing that could have happened.
The fundamental roadblock on the way to peace is not settlements, or checkpoints, or aliyah. It’s not about “The Occupation” (note the capitals). It’s not about how Israel does or doesn’t do the peace process, or bargaining chips, or honest brokering. The fundamental roadblock on the way to peace is the Palestinian refusal to accept the Jewish right to self-determination. The Palestinians do not believe that Jews have a right to a Jewish state the size of a postage stamp anywhere in Palestine. This is because in their deluded minds the Jewish people (to the extent that there even is a Jewish people) has no true connection to the very place it occupies. Jews are not people returning to their historical home, they are instead colonial occupiers. Jews, they imagine, are not there by right, but by sufferance. And they believe, as a consequence of the supposedly non-existent link between Jews and Judea, that the current existence of a Zionist entity is as temporary as it is illegitimate. Sooner or later it will disappear.
It is above all this perverse view that blocks peace.
Now, a thought experiment. If you were to devise a way to bolster the idea that Israel is illegitimate, and its existence temporary, what would you do? You could not find a better way than to make the claim that Jerusalem’s status as the Jewish capital is merely tentative, and subject to the approval of others. After all, the right to name your capital is inherent in the status of sovereign independent state. This, it should be noted, is mentioned specifically in the very calling on the President to move the embassy.
To deny Jews that right is to deny Jews true independence.
Once you say that one may or may not recognize the link between Jews and Jerusalem—a connection that is deeper, longer, and stronger than that of any people with any capital anywhere in the world—once you say, “We’ll see,” that it all depends, that it is somehow conditional (on what?) rather than a bedrock reality, it is an open invitation to the Palestinians to delude themselves into thinking that no such condition could ever be fulfilled. Abbas made this perfectly clear when he declared, “US President Trump’s decision will not change the reality of the city of Jerusalem, nor will it give any legitimacy to Israel in this regard, because it is an Arab Christian and Muslim city, the eternal capital of the state of Palestine.”
And why, therefore, should they make peace and end the conflict? From their perspective, that would be the height of stupidity, voluntarily making permanent that which is, in the eyes of the world and by its very nature, merely temporary.
You can say a lot about the Palestinians, but stupid they ain’t.
Trump’s declaration puts a nail in the coffin, if you’ll pardon the expression, of this distorted and counterproductive view. After all, at the end of the day, if there is ever a negotiated agreement—and I sincerely hope there will be—does anyone seriously imagine that Jerusalem will not be Israel’s capital? Then it’s high time to state the obvious, recognize reality, and stake out a new path, one based on the permanence and legitimacy of Jewish rights.
What President Trump did was not an enormous blunder. It was a great gift, and we should all recognize it as such. True, in the very short term, we are facing “days of rage” riots and bloodshed. The spontaneous demonstrations will go off as scheduled. And of course any loss of life is a terrible thing. But considering that in recent decades America has attacked more than a dozen countries in the Muslim world, and killed about half a million people, all the handwringing about a few rioters hit by rubber bullets seems a bit over the top.
In addition, leaving aside the fact that we should not submit to the standard Middle Eastern diplomacy by temper tantrum, we need to focus in on the phrase, “In the very short term.” When you are talking about Jerusalem, “eternal Jerusalem” as Ben Gurion described her, the “short term” barely exists. We must look beyond hysterical headlines, and see the long view.
And at the very end of the long view, there is a billboard that reads: Yerushalayim shelanu l’netzach. Jerusalem is ours forever.
Reprinted with permission of the author.