Commentary Magazine

Trump Has a Capital Idea on Jerusalem

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

The journalistic class is apoplectic over President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But conservatives, including those skeptical of this president, should add it to the list of Trump-administration foreign policies that deserve praise. The case for recognizing Jerusalem, and relocating the U.S. Embassy there, is formidable. Talk of the move throwing the region into chaos is overwrought and out of touch with Mideast reality.

For starters, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem is in line with the democratic will of the American people. Congress in 1995 enacted a law requiring the State Department to make the relocation, but since then successive administrations of both parties have taken advantage of a waiver to delay it. The waiver process was written into the law. Even so, more than two decades of executive resistance amounts to defiance of Congress. Even die-hard Never Trumpers must admit: There is something refreshing about this administration’s willingness to carry out the law rather than sidestep it.

Yet professional peace-processors don’t care much for the foreign-policy preferences of the American people. They contend that Trump’s capital idea (pun intended) will scuttle any chances for a negotiated settlement to the seven-decade-long conflict. In this, they echo the Palestinian president-for-life, Mahmoud Abbas, who on Wednesday characterized the move as America’s “declaration of withdrawal” from the peace process.

Here’s the problem with this line of argument: What peace process?

For nearly a decade, Abbas has refused to sit down for direct talks, despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s open invitation. Abbas’s rejectionism was spurred in part by the Obama administration’s theory that peace would come from creating “daylight” between the U.S. and the Jewish state and tying talks to an Israeli settlement freeze. Now, with the Jerusalem move, Trump is signaling that Washington will no longer tolerate the Palestinians’ excessive demands–or the obstinacy that led them to turn down generous offers from Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008.

But, ask the peace-processors, what about the violence that will ensue from this? Here one must respond: Have you looked at the Middle East lately?

The whole region is on fire, as America’s traditional Arab allies respond to Iran’s hegemonic ambitions from Yemen to Lebanon. Very little of today’s instability has to do with Israel at all. Thus, Washington should take Arab leaders’ statements of outrage with a grain of salt. Arab elites have to create some sound and fury over Jerusalem to satisfy their publics. But most of them today look to Israel as a protector and potential ally against Tehran.

It can’t be an accident, moreover, that Trump’s announcement followed news of Abbas’s visit last month to Saudi Arabia. There, the reformer-prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) reportedly told the Palestinian leader that Riyadh shares Netanyahu’s view of the conflict. The Palestinians must learn to accept a state with limited sovereignty and non-contiguous territory dotted with Israeli settlements. Under the MBS plan, the New York Times reported, “The Palestinians would not be given East Jerusalem as their capital and there would be no right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.”

The leading Arab power, in other words, has concluded that maintaining the anti-Iranian alliance is more important than a settlement here or an East Jerusalem neighborhood there. The Trump administration’s Jerusalem decision, then, is attuned to the tectonic shifts taking place in the Middle East. Why keep pursuing the fiction that the Palestinian question is the most pressing problem in the region, when the Arabs themselves have moved on?

As for Palestinian groups’ threat of staging days of rage and rioting, that’s not so much an argument against Trump’s decision as it is a case study in why peace has remained elusive for so long.

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