President Trump is poised to do what almost every presidential candidate has promised but then fails to deliver: He may soon recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
U.S. diplomats and those inside and outside the think-tank community who have made the peace process their career have reacted with dire warnings: It will spark an explosion of violence. So too have the Palestinians, Arab states, and Turkey. Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority who is now in the 13th year of his four-year presidential term, warned that an embassy move could mean the end of the peace process. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared the question of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital to be a “redline,” and threatened to sever relations with the Jewish state.
All of these concerns are overwrought. Jerusalem is a city holy to the three great monotheistic religions. But if religious freedom is the concern, then the world should welcome Israeli sovereignty.
After all, Israel is the first country administering Jerusalem to allow Jews, Christians, and Muslims to worship freely. Prior to 1967, when Jordan controlled the Old City of Jerusalem, it dynamited synagogues and expelled the city’s millennia-old Jewish population. As for the Palestinian Authority, they have been a curse for the local Christian community. In the Palestinian Authority’s 23-year-rule, Christians have fled Bethlehem against the backdrop of growing religious intolerance. Indeed, across the Middle East, the Christian population has increased in only one country: Israel.
But what about the diplomatic practicalities? Recognition of Jerusalem’s status as Israel would recalibrate the peace process to reality. The Knesset (Israel’s parliament) is in Jerusalem. So too are most of its ministries and the residence of both the prime minister and president. Israel’s Defense Ministry and Mossad are headquartered outside the city, largely for security reasons (much as the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency are in the U.S.), but they are exceptions. Importantly, most of these Israeli government buildings are located in West Jerusalem, which is not under international dispute.
This is the same area to which the U.S. Embassy would move. And it is the same area which Russia last April recognized as Israel’s capital. (Note that Arab leaders did little more than stifle a yawn when Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized Jerusalem as the capital. Their hysterical reactions now affirm what most presidents, except for Barack Obama, understood: America is exceptional, and the world believes American actions mean more than those who believe themselves powers of consequence).
Simply put, it is not under dispute that Jerusalem is the true capital of Israel. Any prohibition on locating an embassy there is artificial and based more on a rejection of the idea of Israel as a normal state than on any legal or practical reasoning.
Ironically, recognizing Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital could also advance the peace process. It is quite astounding that after a quarter-century of negotiations, Palestinian leaders have not prepared Palestinians for peace. After all, any final status agreement would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. To simply acknowledge reality would force Palestinians to understand that their intransigence is no longer tenable.
Given how lucrative the peace process has been for Palestinians — the greatest recipients of foreign aid per capita on earth — it is not surprising that they would seek an unending process rather than peace. Nor are their complaints with regard to unilateralism credible given Abbas’ willingness to shred commitments the Palestinian leadership made in Oslo with regard to Palestinian lawfare and its moves to leverage international organizations against Israel.
Simply put, Trump’s move would signal that the age of incentivizing intransigence is over. Moreover, recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would force not only Palestinians, but Arabs across the region, to prepare themselves psychologically for peace.
True, American partners such as Egypt and Jordan are worried that changing the status quo could empower domestic opponents: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its affiliates in Jordan will argue that Trump’s “betrayal” is what happens when governments cooperate with Israel and the U.S. But once again, the willingness to allow the most radical and rejectionist elements in the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist veto is what has retarded so much progress in the region for decades.
Nor does Arab rhetoric necessarily match reality. Remember Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 liberation of Kuwait? Arab diplomats warned that sending U.S. forces into Kuwait and Iraq could unleash spontaneous protests which would destabilize the entire region. At the time, there were "spontaneous" protests, painstakingly stage-managed by various governments and labor unions, but these petered out within days.
Pundits might complain about Trump’s move, but Trump is right to make good on his promise. Abbas’ threat to stop the peace process would be meaningful if he had not already done so, and Erdogan’s redline might mean something if he were not a friend to Hamas and an enabler to the Islamic State.
Within Washington, it is ironic that opponents complain about the Trump administration's lawlessness but then criticize Trump for doing what U.S. law says he must.
Recognizing Jerusalem might upend the status quo, and it might upset those who have staked their reputations onto peace process strategies with a long track-record of failure. It may lead to some violence. And it’s no magic bullet. But when heated rhetoric subsides and diplomats once again meet, peace will be one step closer to reality.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.
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