Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has merit, not harm

Whether you hate or love President Trump, don’t let it blind you from the meaning of the words he utters, or the tweets he sends. Regardless of your emotions or strong political leanings, his words are decisively important; he is President of the United States.

In keeping with the genuine skepticism of his remarks on domestic or foreign policy matters, his December 6 proclamation to “officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” was met with a flurry of criticism. Most opinion-writers, bloggers, diplomats, media analysts, heads of state, many international organizations (UN, European Union, etc.), and even the Pope vigorously challenged the wisdom of the US taking a demonstrative position on Jerusalem. A group of American Jewish professors roundly criticized the statement as well as elements within the American Jewish community. Some of the criticism on the Jerusalem statement was and is simply a combination of being anti-Israeli, anti-Netanyahu, or anti-Trump. Seven of nine former US ambassadors to Israel opposed the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem. There was a fear that prolonged violence would ensue. Will it?

Only a minority of writers, among them Caroline Glick in the Jerusalem Post, Bret Stephens in the NY Times,  Israeli writers in Y-Net, and Israeli think tanks whole-heartedly endorsed Trump’s remarks.

In my view, Trump’s remarks were not a haphazard statement electronically dispatched at 5am; they were not uttered with irony or sarcasm during an impromptu response to a press conference question, at a public gathering, or at a town-hall meeting. Trump’s remarks were a skillfully crafted diplomatic statement.

What were the criticisms of his statement and why did his statement have merit? What did he not say, promise, clarify, or preclude?

A major criticism was that his statement was unilateral. The argument was made that the President received nothing in return for stating that “Israel is a sovereign nation with the right like every other sovereign nation to determine its own capital; acknowledging this is a fact is a necessary condition for achieving peace.” Trump was lambasted for not receiving an open Israeli promise to stop settlements, or start negotiations, or something else.

How do those who said he received nothing in return know what was promised privately to the US by the Israelis or by Arab states? When Jared Kusher was in Saudi Arabia a month ago, how do we know what was said then, before or after? The muted Saudi reaction to the Trump statement might be a tell-tale sign.

Second, Arab and Palestinian leaders immediately said the US disqualified itself as a “reliable mediator” in future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Really?  Trump said, “This decision is not intended, in any way, to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement. We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians. We are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved…The United States would support a two-state solution if agreed by both sides… I call on all parties to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, including the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif.”

Third, what infuriates Arab leaders and Trump’s critics is that by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he put the US squarely in the position of reaffirming Israeli sovereignty as the state of the Jewish people. He put the US in the position of challenging the international community’s sharp rebuke of Israel’s claim to a Jewish connection to the land of Israel and Jerusalem as refuted by UNESCO decisions this year and earlier. Further, he rebuked both the Carter (1980) and Obama (2016) administrations’ abstentions from passed UN resolutions, and others claiming that Jerusalem was “occupied territory.” After the 1948 and 1967 wars, and in 1980, Israel reaffirmed in several sovereign ways that Jerusalem is her capital; each time, Arab states and the UN have refused to accept Israel’s sovereign decision. Trump aligned with the rights of a sovereign state over the opinions of the international community.

Fourth, Trump’s choice of this moment to offer the Jerusalem statement had contemporary relevance. It may have been timed to engage those Christian sympathizers who might support Roy Moore’s candidacy in the Alabama senatorial election; as Palestinian leader, Hanan Ashrawi admitted on CNN on 12/10, the Palestinians are in a bad way because Arab states are more concerned with their own well-being. Palestinians themselves are fed up with their own leadership. They suffer from ideological, and physical divisions, and do not have that glue they had as a community or support from Arab states when Arafat was head of the PLO several dozen years ago.

Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid, a senior Arab editorial writer, noted on 12/9 that events unfold too quickly in the Middle East and that attention to the Palestinians is more fleeting than ever before. Mentioning extreme sectarianism, the Iranian-Saudi clashes, the very existence of the dire circumstances in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Russia being on the move in the region, his conclusion was that “The Palestinian cause and Jerusalem are being used to serve personal agendas…”

Finally, what was significantly omitted in Trump’s speech? He did not say when the embassy would be moved; he did not tell the US ambassador in Tel Aviv to move to Jerusalem now, and use the US consulate in west Jerusalem as the temporary American embassy until the embassy is built. He did not say that a future US embassy in Jerusalem could not be both an address for Palestinian and Israeli diplomats. He did not prejudice definitive disposition of Jerusalem in final negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. He did not preclude a two-state solution, nor did he remove the US as a mediator. A lot of premature hand wringing.

Jerusalem Timeline