By Ron Young
On Dec. 6, President Trump announced, “It is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” For 22 years presidents, Democrat and Republican, including President Trump six months ago, signed a security waiver postponing this move to avoid complicating and harming prospects of achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Last month, President Trump declared boldly, “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more, or less, than recognition of reality.”
What President Trump and his White House team failed to recognize is that “reality” about Jerusalem is complicated by the city being the geographical and cultural center of legitimate bone-deep national aspirations of not one, but two peoples — Jews and Palestinians, and the heart of three religious traditions. That reality has led everyone involved in seeking peace to agree that the status of Jerusalem realistically can only be resolved in the context of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reaching an agreement on a formula for sharing the city.
According to a recent University of Maryland Critical Issues poll, two-thirds of Americans oppose the U.S. unilaterally making this move now, and even Republicans are closely divided. According to an American Jewish Committee poll, less than 20 percent of American Jews support taking this step immediately. The Union of Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish religious denomination, and pro-Israel/pro-peace JStreet both raised concerns about the wisdom and timing of the move. President Trump did deliver on a promise to some of his base, including a slim majority of fundamentalist evangelical Christians.
In the Middle East, while the president’s announcement pleased supporters of Israel’s current right-wing government, many Israeli advocates of peace opposed the move. The announcement deeply angered Palestinians and frustrated Saudi and other Arab leaders on whom the White House appears to be depending for help in reaching a peace agreement. The announcement completely ignored examples of two popular Israeli national heroes, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin, who understood the complex, sensitive realities about Jerusalem.
In the fall of 1967, shortly after Israel won the Six Day War and occupied Jerusalem, a young impetuous Israeli soldier raised the Israeli flag over the city. Gen. Moshe Dayan immediately ordered the flag to be taken down, warning that Jerusalem was too sensitive to be treated in such a cavalier manner.
Three decades later in 1995 during the Oslo negotiating process, two Republicans, Sen. Bob Dole and Rep. Newt Gingrich, introduced a bill to mandate moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The bill won overwhelming support in Congress. Despite strong support for the bill from AIPAC (viewed as the American lobby for Israel), Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and many Israeli and American Jewish supporters of the peace process were worried by the bill. Rabin, who staunchly supported Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, was concerned the bill could derail peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Motivated by Rabin’s concern and her own, Sen. Diane Feinstein, a Democrat and dedicated supporter of Israel, successfully introduced an amendment to the bill that enabled the president to sign a waiver every six months, postponing moving the embassy based on “national security considerations.”
Attempting to reassure critics who viewed his Jerusalem announcement as provocatively partisan, President Trump declared, “This decision is not intended, in any way, as 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.
Positively, the president did also nuance his announcement by stating, “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.” But on Jan. 2, appearing to contradict this nuanced position, President Trump tweeted, “We’ve taken Jerusalem off the table.”
The Jerusalem announcement and this latest tweet have cast a dark cloud of doubt and pessimism over the Trump administration’s promise soon to unveil a plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace and over U.S. credibility as mediator.
The simplest step the president could take to clarify the U.S. position and help restore confidence and credibility would be to announce that as the U.S. currently recognizes (West) Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, so as part of a mutually acceptable two-state peace agreement, the U.S. will recognize (East) Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. Such an announcement would help mitigate the harmful effects of the move and could, indeed, kick-start negotiations for a realistic two-state peace agreement.
Ron Young serves as consultant with Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (NILI). This commentary represents Young’s personal views, not necessarily the views of NILI. He lives in Everett and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.