Israelis and Palestinians have envisioned a capital in Jerusalem, and for generations the Americans, the honest brokers in seeking peace, withheld recognition of either side’s claims, pending a treaty that through hard compromise would resolve all competing demands. But on Monday President Trump delivered the embassy as a gift without concession or condition to the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, and as a blow to the Palestinians.
This view is historically inaccurate and reflects the longstanding and wrong-headed Arabist notion that peace requires the United States to force Israel to surrender to Palestinian demands.
First, as a matter of historical fact, America’s refusal to locate its capital in Jerusalem had nothing to do with the Palestinians. For the first 19 years of Israeli independence, East Jerusalem was controlled by Jordan and the establishment of a Palestinian state was not on the international agenda. Advocates for the Palestinians ignore the fact that the Palestinians never demanded a state during the Jordanian occupation.
Second, it is up to each sovereign nation to determine its capital and Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The United States has the right to determine the site of its embassy, but Israel was the only country in the world whose capital we refused to recognize. Trump simply ended that anomaly.
Third, why should righting a historical wrong come with strings? Just what concessions was Israel expected to make for recognition of its capital? Arabists and others with similar views, such as the New York Times editors have maintained the fiction that peace could be achieved in the Middle East if Israel could be forced to accept the demands of its enemies. The Palestinians have been offered statehood or a path to independence on numerous occasions dating to 1937 and they have rejected them all.
After repeated negotiations during which Israel offered to give up as much as 97 percent of the West Bank, it became clear that no Israeli concessions short of suicide will satisfy the Palestinians. This was evident again in May 2018 as Palestinians sought to overrun the border in Gaza to attack Israel despite the fact that Israel evacuated the entire Gaza Strip in 2005. Hamas explicitly states its goal is the destruction of Israel and Palestinians commemorate May 14 as Nakba Day because they consider the creation of Israel a “catastrophe” and do not recognize Israeli sovereignty anywhere; therefore, the notion that trading the movement of our embassy for concessions by Israel would bring peace is pure fantasy.
The Times also misrepresented history by stating that the “Nakba” involved “the expulsion of their ancestors from the newly formed Jewish state.” A small number of Palestinians were expelled following the Arab invasion of Israel, but the overwhelming majority fled at the request of their leaders or to avoid being caught in the crossfire of a war. They expected to return to their homes, and take those belonging to the Israelis, after the Arab armies drove the Jews into the sea.
Fourth, why is it that only Israel is expected to make unilateral concessions? Why aren’t any demands made of the Palestinians? How does the Times figure that America is an “honest broker” if it only gives ultimatums to Israel?
The Times inaccurately states that America has been neutral for the last 70 years. The United States has had a special relationship with Israel not with the Palestinians. Israelis share similar values and interests with Americans; the Palestinians do not.
Fifth, the Palestinians insist their capital is Jerusalem, but they have no historical, legal or political claim to the city. King David made Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish people 3,000 years ago; the city has never been the capital of any Arab or Muslim entity.
Israel will not give up its capital and Trump’s action advanced the peace process by making clear to the Palestinians the United States will not force Israel to do so. If a Palestinian state is ever created, its capital will have to be elsewhere. The administration has reportedly suggested a suburb of Jerusalem, Abu Dis, as the site. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas proposed the same site in 1995 and the Palestinians erected a parliament building there. Nevertheless, Abbas denounced Trump’s proposal, which would put the Palestinian capital less than two miles from the Temple Mount.
Sixth, Barack Obama was the most pro-Palestinian president in history, someone whose State Department went so far as to remove the word Israel from the dateline of a press release following his attendance at the funeral of Shimon Peres in Jerusalem. Still, the Palestinians thumbed their nose at him, with Abbas refusing to negotiate with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for eight years despite Obama pressuring Israel to freeze settlement construction and repeatedly criticizing Israeli policy.
Seventh, the notion advanced by critics that the timing of the embassy move was bad and that it makes it impossible for the United States to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians is false. The U.S. waited 70 years to move the embassy; how much longer should it be delayed? Critics would say when a peace agreement is signed, but that is essentially guaranteeing the move is deferred indefinitely while we wait for a Palestinian leader to emerge who will accept living in peace with Israel. As far as our role as a mediator, the Palestinians may complain but they know America is the only game in town. The United States is the only country that has influence in Jerusalem.
Moving the U.S. embassy had the bipartisan support of Congress and was long overdue. It was also time to jettison the Arabist approach to Middle East policy, which speciously holds that support for Israel damages our relations with the Arabs. The lack of serious opposition to the embassy move was just the latest evidence of this fallacy. Israel is our ally and deserves our support. There is no reason to treat this democracy on an equal footing with the authoritarian Palestinian regime.
Trump is also correct in diagnosing the obstacle to peace as Palestinian intransigence and the leadership’s continuing support for incitement and terrorism directed at the Jewish people. One-sided pressure on Israel only emboldened the Palestinians and created false hope that America would force Israelis to capitulate to their unreasonable demands.
The “ultimate deal” Trump hopes to facilitate can only be achieved in direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and requires a recalibration of Palestinian expectations. Moving the U.S. embassy and showing the Palestinians they will not divide Jerusalem was an important first step.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and author/editor of 23 books including The Arab Lobby and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.