Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital
[Prefatory Note: The following post is a modified version of an article published on December 8th in Middle East Eye. It considers the normative and geopolitical sides of Trump’s unilateralism. Apologists claiming Trump finally acknowledged the operational reality that Jerusalem has been serving as the capital of Israel for the last 50 years, and the disruptive effects have been exaggerated as Saudi Arabia has not reacted in a strongly negative manner. Critics, including myself, regard the initiative as a gratuitous slap at the Palestinians and a further confirmation of Trump’s disregard of international law, international morality, and the authority of the United Nations. The status of Jerusalem serves as a focal point for the tension between the old geopolitics of hard power realism and the normative geopolitics of soft power new realism that is struggling through a birthing process in many settings. In my view the resolution of this tension will shape the trajectory of 21st century humanity. In other words, the stakes are high.]
Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital
With the deftness of a bull in a china shop, Donald Trump has ignored the advice of several close advisors, disregarded the fervent pleas of several of Israel’s closest Arab neighbors, ignored warnings of America’s traditional allies in the Middle East and Europe, and ruptured a key element of an international consensus that had long prevailed at the UN, by going ahead to proclaim formally Washington’s view that Jerusalem is and will be the capital of Israel. Such a declaration serves also to rationalize the prior pledge to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv, the city where every other country in the world insists on maintaining its government to government relationship with Israel, to the city of Jerusalem, sacred to all three of the monotheistic religions.
The most obvious question to pose is one of motivations: Why? Strange as it may seem to those living in the Middle East, the most persuasive explanation is that Trump saw this act of recognition as an opportunity to show his most fervent supporters at home that he was being true to his campaign promises. Trump has been frustrated during the first year of his presidency by his embarrassing inability to carry out the program that helped get him elected in 2016. It is true that by taking this further step toward relocating the American embassy Trump’s popularity in Israel spiked and as he has pointed out he is actually doing what his predecessors and Congress has long proposed.
In essence, Trump seems to have taken this internationally controversial step because he cares about pleasing the Christian Zionists and the Israeli Lobby in America more than he does about ruffling the feathers of UN diplomats, possibly inflaming the Arab masses, removing the last shred of doubt among Palestinians that the U.S. could ever be trusted to play the role of ‘honest broker,’ or even partisan intermediary, in the pursuit of a two-state solution, and perhaps most of all, connecting American foreign policy in the turbulent Middle East is some durable and coherent way with strategic national interests in regional stability.
From this perspective, Trump has once again demonstrated his extraordinary talent for choosing the worst possible alternative in delicate international situations where dire consequences could follow from the wrong policy turn, and the rewards of going it alone seem minimal and transient, at best.
This vivid instance of Jerusalem unilateralism parallels the geopolitical stupidity of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015 a few months ago. There also the Trump approach to foreign policy seemed perversely designed to burnish its already secure reputation as the first rogue superpower of the nuclear age. This global spoiler role is also dangerously evident in the apocalyptic threat diplomacy adopted by Trump in the Korean Peninsula as a response to Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons program, which include provocative bluster, weapons developments, and grave risks of mutual miscalculation.
Liberal opinion in the U.S. and abroad lamented the Trump initiative on Jerusalem for the wrong reasons. Especially prominent was the assertion in various forms that Trump had damaged, if not destroyed, the ‘peace process,’ and its special role as convening party. Such a concern presupposes that a peace process sufficiently existed to be susceptible to being destroyed. While promising ‘the deal of the century,’ Trump turned over his supposed peace offensive, to pro-Zionist extremists and settler fundamentalists (David M. Friedman, Jared Kushner, and Jason Greenblatt) whose obvious goal was not peace, but putting the finishing touches on what they regarded as an Israeli victory that only needed a face-saving exit arrangement for the Palestinian Authority to complete the job. Working in tandem with the Netanyahu leadership, the Trump effort has been so far focused on killing ‘the two-state solution,’ at least in its claim to satisfy reasonable Palestinian expectations of self-determination in the form of a viable and truly independent sovereign state with its capital in East Jerusalem. In its place, one supposes that the Trump ‘dream team’ will come up with a non-viable polity in what remains under Palestinian control in the West Bank, either tied to Gaza or separated in some enduring way, affronting reality by calling the plan a fulfillment of two-state expectations, and dismissing Palestinian objections as ‘rejectionism,’ a stubborn insistence on having it all, and in the end, a take it or leave it version of Hobson’s Choice.
As matters now stand, the status quo is also very unfavorable from the point of view of the Palestinian national struggle and the implementation of the international community’s version of a reasonable compromise. This status quo of occupation and dispossession facilitates the continuing conversion of the 1967 ‘occupation’ of Palestinian territory into a permanent reality that unlawfully blends the annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem with the maintenance of control over the Palestinian people by means of apartheid structures of subjugation. If this assessment is correct, then moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem can be seen as supportive of Netanyahu’s apparent conception of the end-game of this hundred year struggle between the national aspirations of these two embattled peoples. In this regard, the bluntness of the Trump approach exposes to the world an ugly reality that should have been obvious all along to anyone looking at Israeli behavior with a critical eye, or grasping the policy fallout from the ‘America First’ mantra.
What gives this regressive turn its plausibility, posing yet another challenge to the Palestinian movement, is the blind eye that the new look in Riyadh has turned toward even the Judaization of Jerusalem, which would seem to confirm the Saudi priority of geopolitical collaboration with the United States and Israel, even at the expense of fundamental Islamic concerns and the maintenance of solidarity in the Muslim world. In this sense, it is well to take some note of the declaration of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), endorsed by all 57 of its member states (including Saudi Arabia), that Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine, denying Israel any right to a formal governing process in the city.
While this substantive analysis helps us grasp the geopolitical context that makes recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital a kick in the groin of Palestinian delusions about a viable peace diplomacy while at the same time leading most Israelis to dance in the streets. It also underscores the hypocrisy of the international community’s call for reviving the peace process when it should long have been evident that Israeli settlement expansion as well as Tel Aviv’s approach to Jerusalem had passed the point of no return, and thus the occasion for abandoning an unworkable diplomacy, and facing with honesty the daunting question—‘What next?.’ Israel’s recent behavior makes it clear for all except hasbarists that the Israeli government has no current willingness whatsoever to end the conflict if this means creating an independent Palestinian state delimited by 1967 borders, thereby encompassing West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. For Israel the alternatives are perpetuating the apartheid status quo or allowing for the emergence of ‘Bantustan Palestine’ as the diplomatic price that the Netanyahu leadership is willing to pay for a certification of ‘peaceful solution.
From the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 to this historic moment acknowledging Israel’s claims to Jerusalem, Zionism and since 1948, the state of Israel, have disseminated a double-coded message to the world. In its public utterances, Israel’s public posture is one of a readiness for compromise and peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians, while its practices and actual objectives, can only be understood as the step by step consistent pursuit of the visionary ideal of Greater Israel or Our Promised Land. The present Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, in the course of thanking Trump for standing so strongly with Israel, told an American TV audience that Jerusalem has been truly the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years. No where has Israel’s double-coding been more evident than in relation to Jerusalem. It uses the grandiose claims of Jewish religion tradition when it can and the somewhat more constraining diplomacy of statecraft when it offers opportunities, and does its best to avoid altogether the precepts of international humanitarian law or the UN consensus.
On the public discourse side stands Israel’s public acceptance of the partition arrangements embodied in General Assembly Resolution 181, which included the internationalization of Jerusalem under UN administration. More critically viewed from a behavioral discourse perspective, Israel’s actual conduct flagrantly consistently defied international law by formally enlarging and annexing Jerusalem as ‘the eternal capital’ of the Jewish people and manipulating the demographics and cultural heritage of the city in ways that made it seem more credible to regard the whole of Jerusalem as a Jewish city.
It is difficult for even notorious Israeli apologists, such as Elliot Abrams or former American ambassadors to Israel to defend the actual Trump decision. Such apologists prefer to adopt a default position. Yes, the timing of the White House initiative was tactically questionable, but its international condemnation greatly exaggerates its importance and inappropriateness. They view criticisms and concerns as overblown, amounting to a display of ‘heavy breathing.’ In effect these apologists agree with Trump’s core contention that the acceptance of Israel’s claim to have its capital in Jerusalem, is an overdue recognition of reality, nothing more, nothing less, and that the rest of the world will have to learn to live with this recognition. Time will tell whether this downplaying of fears of renewed violence of resistance and anti-Americanism are anything other than a feeble attempt by apologists to reaffirm Israel’s legitimacy in the face of what should turn out to be a geopolitical fiasco.
What should dismay the region and the world the most about Trump’s Jerusalem policy is its peculiar mixture of ignoring law, morality, and the international consensus while so blatantly harming America’s more constructively conceived national interests and tradition of global leadership. This mixture becomes toxic with respect to Jerusalem because by humiliating the Palestinian national movement and ignoring the symbolic status of Jerusalem for Muslims and the Arab peoples, it makes violent extremism more likely while lending support to existing postures of anti-Americanism. How incoherent and self-defeating to proclaim the defeat of ISIS and political extremism as the top American priority and then making this Jerusalem move that is virtually certain to produce populist rage and an extremist backlash. No ISIS recruiter could have wished for more!
Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He initiated this blog partly in celebration of his 80th birthday.