Reflections on Jerusalem, One Year After Trump Policy Shift

On December 6, 2017, President Trump broke with longstanding U.S. policy – dating back to before 1948 and the birth of the modern state of Israel – and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Now, just over a year later and on the eve of 2019, we offer these reflections on what this policy change has wrought:

Jerusalem is not off the table. If the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the move of the U.S. Embassy were geared, in the words of President Trump, to “take Jerusalem off the table” and consolidate international support for Israeli rule over the city, they have largely achieved the opposite. In the year since Trump’s recognition, there has been nearly universal condemnation of any unilateral move regarding the political status of the city, and so far, only Guatemala has followed the U.S. lead.

The Trump policy opened the way for more rational and open discourse around Jerusalem. For many years, the issue of “united Jerusalem” was a third rail for politicians in the West in terms of their own domestic politics.  The move by the Trump Administration has changed things in that regard. Indeed, the Trump Administration’s Jerusalem policies – which purported to merely “recognize reality” – have, ironically, made rational political discourse on the permanent status of the city more, and not less, acceptable. In the U.S., the move – tainted by the array of problematic policies and statements of the Trump Administration vis-a-vis Israel-Palestine issues, as well as by the seemingly deliberately provocative manner in which the decision was taken, announced, and implemented – sparked fierce criticism, even from politicians who have long supported, in principle, both recognition and moving the embassy. Likewise, discussions in other countries about following suit have sparked fierce, substantive debates in a number of countries, including most recently Australia [discussed below] – where the move to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital generated not only a feisty debate which has yet to abate, but even ridicule for Prime Minister Morrison’s policies and its motivations.

There are no easy outs, compromises, or short cuts for politicians. Nothing short of full recognition of all of Jerusalem (and not merely West Jerusalem) as Israel’s capital, accompanied by immediate moving of an embassy, will satisfy Netanyahu and official Israel. Likewise, no move that grants Israel the immediate dividend of recognition of its claims in the city, but offers Palestinians only a promise of possible future recognition of their claims, will placate either the Palestinians or the Arab and Muslim worlds. The status of Jerusalem will be determined only in negotiations, the prospects for which are today remote, or even non-existent. There are no shortcuts, and any attempts to artificially force the issue are per-ordained to failure.

Evangelical hardliners are playing a bigger and bigger role.  As has been noted elsewhere, the purportedly “pro-Israel” policy of recognizing all of Jerusalem as belonging to Israel, and denying or marginalizing Palestinian claims and equities, is increasingly attributed to those politicians and leaders with worldviews rooted in the end-of-days Evangelical right — and is not widely supported by their fellow politicians or citizens.

Netanyahu is digging a deeper and deeper hole.  The legitimization of rational political discourse around Jerusalem, as well as the ideological affinities that increasingly find him making common cause with authoritarian leaders and hardline evangelicals, put Netanyahu in a difficult position navigating relationships with many traditional allies of Israel, both in terms of governments (like most of the EU) and diaspora Jewish communities (especially in the U.S.). No doubt cognizant of the problem and aware of the implications of his predicament, Netanyahu appears to have adopted a policy of doubling and tripling down, diplomatic and political collateral damage be damned. This explains his continued readiness to deepen ties with some of the most illiberal leaders in the world today (most of whom are plagued by their own problematic affiliations with anti-Semitism and/or Holocaust revisionism) — like Hungary’s Orban, the Philippine’s Duterte, Italy’s Salvini, Poland’s Morawiecki, and now Brazil’s Bolsonaro [discussed below]. And in parallel, he is willing to go to unprecedented lengths to stifle debate on Jerusalem and bully the world in accepting sole Israeli hegemony over the city, as his attempt to get the German government to defund the Jewish Museum in Berlin indicates.

Jerusalem can make or break any “Deal of the Century.” Trump’s recognition and transfer of the Embassy, Netanyahu’s attempts to consolidate exclusive Israeli rule over the city, and Australia’s partial recognition have a common denominator: the belief that the Status of Jerusalem can be resolved unilaterally and without regard to the claims or equities of the Palestinians. This belief is mistaken. One messes with the issue of Jerusalem at one’s own peril. If this reckless approach towards Jerusalem will be reflected in the highly anticipated U.S. “deal of the century” (which may or may not be published soon, or ever), the issue of Jerusalem will, in and of itself, will condemn the plan to a pre-ordained failure.