Recognizing Jerusalem: A Good Move For The Wrong Reasons?


At dinner last Friday night, a friend posed this question to those of us at the table who’d expressed mixed feelings about President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel: “If a year ago, in the final weeks of his term, President Obama had made the same speech that Trump did this week, would you feel differently?”

It’s a good question because it gets to the heart of the issue of whether one’s reaction to the move was based more on the action itself or who was initiating it. (Hard to imagine that Obama would make such a decision without it being part of a carefully developed strategy.)

Part of my problem with President Trump’s declaration, which included plans to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, is that I think it was based less on a cohesive Mideast strategy than on politics and personal ego. Specifically, that means making good on a campaign promise and pleasing his base, including evangelical Christians and his pro-Israel supporters, while showing up his Oval Office predecessors who talked about moving the embassy but didn’t act on it.

As has become increasingly evident in his first year in office, Trump has been erratic, impulsive and often paranoid in his approach to major issues, foreign and domestic. He has instituted a kind of anti-presidency in the White House, obsessed with undoing the programs and values of those who came before him while attacking two pillars of a democratic society: the mainstream press and the judicial system.

“The city always has been the capital and the heart of the Jewish people.”

So it’s been hard for me to separate the man, with his many personal flaws, from his policies, such as they are. That said, and whatever his motives, I give the president credit for having righted a moral and historical wrong by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The city always has been the capital and the heart of the Jewish people. Our daily prayers, going back to ancient times, have included a yearning for our return to Jerusalem. The Trump statement underscores that despite Palestinian and United Nations’ efforts to deny the historic connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem, it indeed goes back 3,000 years. And it is important that Israel, like every other country in the world, is permitted to have a capital of its choosing.

What’s more, at the heart of the Israeli-Arab conflict since the day the state was created, is the widespread refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish people’s right to a state in their homeland. For too long the failed peace efforts have been asymmetrical in demanding far more from Israel than from the Palestinians, whose leaders’ position has been to reject Israel’s offers and focus on victimhood rather than a sincere desire to improve the lives of their people through compromise.

If the Trump approach is to make it clear that the U.S. is firmly behind Israel and committed to force the Palestinians to come to grips with that reality, insisting that all threats of terror must stop before there are any discussions of Israeli concessions, that would be emotionally satisfying. But we’re not there yet.

President Trump has spoken of, but is not yet fully committed to, a two-state solution, saying he’d go along with it if that’s what the Israelis and Palestinians want. But let’s note at the outset that the alternatives are fraught with danger. Exhibit A: In the wake of the Trump announcement last week, Saeb Erekat, the top Palestinian negotiator, is now endorsing a one-state solution “with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea.” That sounds equitable and would be a hard argument to counter, but the result is that Israelis would be outnumbered and Israel would cease to be a Jewish state.

The other option is that the increasingly bold Israeli right would prevail in ensuring a state with a Jewish majority by limiting the voting rights of Arabs. Israel would no longer be a democracy; it would be seen as an apartheid state.

So for all its potential flaws, a two-state solution should be the desired goal. Why, then, if the U.S. wants to maintain its role as honest broker, did it give away the prize of Jerusalem to Israel at this early stage? The Trump announcement has, at least for now, put an abrupt end to a preparatory peace process that the administration seemed to be cultivating with uncharacteristic patience and pragmatism.

The administration’s hope may well be that all the angry talk of the Palestinians’ refusing to deal with the U.S. or Israel and renewing violence will soon dissipate, and that Arab states, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, will value Israel’s role as an ally in countering Iran over their support for the Palestinians. The idea seems to be to wait out the Palestinians until, recognizing they have little alternative, they come crawling to the negotiating table, finally ready to make the kinds of concessions that could lead to a meaningful peace process. But it could backfire, with the Palestinians feeling desperate enough to launch a third intifada.

It’s always wise to beware of the Law of Unintended Consequences, a prominent factor in Mideast machinations.

In the meantime, it’s worth noting that, in varying degrees, there was consensus within the religious movements here on Trump’s announcement. The Orthodox Union enthusiastically “applauded” the move; the Conservative movement said it “was pleased” with the initiative, while calling for a two-state solution; and the Reform movement described the president’s announcement as “ill-timed” in affirming the movement’s longstanding position that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, adding: “We cannot support his decision to begin preparing that move now” of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem “absent a comprehensive plan for a peace process.”

I guess you can find my views somewhere in that mix — pleased with the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the intention to move the embassy there, but worried at the price Israel will have to pay and whether these moves will hasten or delay an end to the conflict.


was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at