From Jerusalem, Thoughts On American Recognition Of Israel’s Capital

It’s complicated.

We quickly gave up counting how many times that phrase has been uttered by Muki, our professional tour guide, over the past 10 days of our bipartisan and bicameral Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) State Legislator Trip to Israel.

Muki’s right, of course.

Israeli history, Jewish history, the relationship between Jews and Christians, Jews and Muslims, certain kinds of Jews with other kinds of Jews, between the different Christian sects, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims, and so on, is all very complicated.

Especially, with respect to Jerusalem.

The nuances and tangled histories of who controls what can be especially vexing, especially to Americans who reflexively want to know who is right and not how best to get along, to fully appreciate.

Take the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem, which contains the two holiest sites in Christianity. Since 1853, the pre-Reformation churches, which have official standing at the church (hence, Protestants are more than welcome to visit, but they don’t control any space there), have more or less maintained a delicate balance between themselves as to who controls which areas and even which sect can sweep which steps on which days of the week. It helps too that the keys to the Church have been held by the same Muslim family since 1192.

In his address regarding Jerusalem, President Donald Trump rightly points out several facts which are not in dispute. These include the reality that Israel’s Knesset (Parliament), Supreme Court, Prime Minister’s residence, and various other institutions of its sovereignty are all located within Jerusalem, and have been since shortly after the country’s rebirth in 1948. It has also been a long time since American elected officials refused to meet with their counterparts in Jerusalem. Moreover, in its 3,000 years of history, Jerusalem has only been the political capital of the ancient Jewish kingdoms and the modern State of Israel.

Additionally, though the entire city of Jerusalem was supposed to have become an international city under the United Nation’s 1947 Partition Plan, which Israel agreed to and the Palestinians and their Arab allies rejected, the caucus of serious people who think that internationalizing Jerusalem is very small. The notion then that when our JCRC delegation met last week at the Knesset with six MKs (from parties which ranged from Likud on the right to Meretz on the left), that we were anywhere other than in Israel is an absurdity.

Given these truths about Jerusalem, or at the very least about west Jerusalem, which is a political and not truly a geographic designation, what are the complications to recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel?

The first primary complication is the fear that by this official recognition, blood will be shed. It is not an unreasonable fear, given the history of this most contested city. In speaking with Israelis, many express similar concerns about potential violence. At the same time, they express appreciation of what they believe is a long overdue recognition of their capital and Israel’s right, like any other nation, to select their own capital. Similarly, my Palestinian friends have expressed their fears to me of potential violence. I even must also admit some relief that we toured the Old City and Bethlehem last week, which being Jewish makes me feel guilty when I think about my friends who will still live and work in both cities after we’ve come home to Minnesota.

Note, however, that while most pundits will focus on the relative likelihood of bloodshed, few will ask the question of whether resorting to violence is a reasonable response to what is essentially the official recognition of what has long been the status quo. How little must the world think of Palestinians, or Arabs and Muslims more broadly, that we assume that recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (while taking no position on the eventual boundaries of the city) will inevitably lead to violence (though after hours after first drafting this column, that is in fact what did happen in the West Bank and Gaza)?

Additionally, if fear of bloodshed was truly a veto over doing the right thing, then Israel would never have declared itself independent nearly seventy years ago a few miles from the Tel Aviv hotel where I’m writing this. Nor would it do much of anything, as here, where everything is complicated, almost any decision can get people killed.

The second argument against American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is that, at the very least, the Trump Administration should have first secured some concessions from Israel’s democratically elected government. These arguments are not hard to find, and Thomas Friedman’s column in today’s New York Times is as good as any to read that point of view. Essentially, Friedman argues that by just giving Israel something which it has long desired without, for example, forcing Israel to freeze construction on new settlements outside already existing settlement blocks, President Trump missed an opportunity to advance prospects for reaching a two-state solution, which remains a cornerstone for American foreign policy.

Again, as is the case with the argument concerning potential violence, I am not completely unsympathetic to the point of view. After all, Donald Trump became president in part based on his assertion that he would be a tough negotiator. Here, Israel gets something which, though largely symbolic, is also very important, while seemingly giving up nothing in return.

Ultimately, I’m looking at this issue differently than Friedman and other naysayers, in part because of something I was taught in law school. There we learned that there are issues which we debate, and are therefore on the table, and then there are issues which we don’t debate, and therefore are not on the table. A good illustration of this is the difference between abortion and infanticide. We debate abortion, but no one debates the legality of infanticide.

Moving to the issue of Jerusalem, we can and should still debate (and the parties will negotiate) over the city’s boundaries and even whether a future Palestinian state should also have a portion of Jerusalem be its capital as well. But the notion as to whether or not Jerusalem is the capital of Israel is and should, as of today, be off the table. Recognizing that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel is then not so much a concession to Israel as it is a concession to reality.

Moreover, when this decision is coupled with the pending passage of the Taylor Force Act, which reduces funding to the Palestinian Authority so long as its “pay for slay” policies are in place, it is a clear signal to the Palestinian leadership that after seventy plus years of saying no, resorting to terrorism, and then attempting to short-circuit negotiations by seeking cheap victories before the BDS movement or sympathetic international bodies, that the United States is not impressed by its threats.

So yes, it is complicated. Those of us who have always known Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital and/or those of us who prefer their foreign policy to be grounded in reality, can both be satisfied that America has finally recognized that which has always been true, and at the same time be nervous for what this decision will bring. Similarly, it is not unreasonable to worry that the progress which may have been made recently with Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations which are quietly moving towards Israel may be undermined, at least in the short-term, by this announcement.

Still, with just a few hours to go on out trip, and with the knowledge that I will soon return to being a full-time resident of the Midwest and not just a frequent visitor to the Middle East, it is hard not to feel at least some satisfaction that a dose of reality has descended upon this land from the most unlikely of places.

Ethan Roberts is Director of the Twin Cities Jewish Community Government Affairs Program. Along with his JCRC colleagues, Bryan Goltzman and Susie Greenberg, Ethan just concluded leading a ten day JCRC trip to Israel and Bethlehem for thirty-four Minnesotans, including six state legislators. It was all very complicated, but interesting and fun as well.