Recognizing Jerusalem Is the First Step Toward Peace
Contrary to the hysterical reactions around the world, President Trump’s decision to ignore naysayers and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital may be the most important contribution to the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace that any American leader could have made. As the president correctly noted, he has broken with the failed policies of the past — but many of his leading critics were responsible for those failures.
It is a mystery why anyone is listening to the kvetching of the foreign policy establishment, especially former State Department officials, who have a nearly 70-year record of failure in the region. They have been so consistently wrong in their evaluations of the area, and misguided in their approaches to peace, that it is irresponsible for the media to give their opinions credence.
We keep hearing that the peace process is now dead — as though it were alive prior to Trump’s announcements. For those who were asleep for the duration of Barack Obama’s administration, here is a reminder: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused to negotiate for the last eight years. This, despite Obama being perhaps the most pro-Palestinian president in history, convincing Israel to freeze settlement construction for 10 months and exerting one-sided pressure on Israel.
The single greatest obstacle to peace is the Palestinian leadership’s 80-year refusal to accept any compromise that acknowledges the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Jerusalem has nothing to do with their irredentism. It is simply inconceivable to them that a Jewish state should exist in the Islamic heartland, or that Jews should be allowed to rule over Muslims. They have made no secret that they see the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1949 Armistice lines, with Jerusalem as its capital, as nothing more than the first stage in a long-term strategy of destroying Israel. Hamas says it explicitly. Meanwhile, Fatah — under Abbas’ leadership –expresses it symbolically in its emblem, Palestinian Authority maps and its education system, which depicts a Palestinian state encompassing all of what is now Israel.
The reason that the recognition of Jerusalem is a potential game changer is that it was a necessary step to disabuse the Palestinians of the fantasy that they will ever be permitted to establish a capital in Jerusalem and redivide the city. Israel is never going to give up its historic capital, or control over Judaism’s holiest sites. Until that sinks into the Palestinian consciousness, there is never any chance of a peace agreement.
The uncomfortable truth that the Palestinians and their supporters refuse to acknowledge is that they have no claim to Jerusalem. They simply demand a capital in the city based on nothing more than a childlike desire to seize something they want — something that belongs to someone else. Jerusalem has never been the capital of an Arab state; in fact, it was considered a backwater under Muslim rule. By contrast, the Jewish connection to Jerusalem dates back 3,000 years. Jews yearned to return to their capital and prayed in its direction for centuries. Jews have also comprised the majority of the population since the late 19th century.
The fact that Jerusalem is a site of Muslim reverence provides no basis for the Palestinian claim to the city. While the entire city of Jerusalem is holy to the Jewish people, only the Al-Aqsa Mosque is religiously significant in Islam. Most Palestinians are Muslims — but that does not give them any legal, moral or historical right to sovereignty over Jerusalem, and it gives them no greater connection to the city than any other Muslims.
The only rationale for entertaining the idea of a Palestinian presence in Jerusalem is essentially capitulating to blackmail: if Israel does not accept Palestinian demands, there will be violence. This was the same argument that held up the US recognition of Jerusalem for so long — fear of provoking unrest. But Trump finally had the courage to declare that US policy will no longer be held hostage by threats from terrorists.
Coercion only works to an extent with Israel. Because Israelis do not want eternal conflict with the Palestinians, they are prepared to compromise on Jerusalem — but not to divide the city or give up control of the parts of East and West Jerusalem that they care most about. The president essentially endorsed that position. Rather than preclude any agreement, however, the new US position on Jerusalem forces those Palestinians interested in peace to moderate their views.
In fact, they don’t have to radically change their position; they need only to return to a plan that was once endorsed by Abbas in talks with Yossi Beilin of Israel’s Labor Party. Their idea was to establish the capital of “Palestine” in a part of Jerusalem known as Abu Dis. Few people are aware of this, but the Palestinians were prepared enough to accept this solution that they built a parliament building in the city.
Since Abu Dis is within the boundaries of Jerusalem, the Palestinians can honestly say that their capital is in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Israel can say that its capital is in Jerusalem, and maintain control over the parts of the city that contain Judaism’s holy places and its government institutions. All the non-Jewish sacred sites would remain free and accessible to all — as they are today. The Palestinians would have to give up the dream of flying their flag over the Temple Mount and Israel would have to accept a Palestinian presence in what they would prefer to be an undivided city. Worse, Israel’s capital, major population centers and international airport would be within rocket range of West Bank terrorists.
This is not a perfect solution — but that is the nature of compromise.
Recognition of Jerusalem was a necessary but not sufficient step to fully disabuse the Palestinians of their fantasies. Trump should take the additional step of formalizing the position expressed by George W. Bush in his April 14, 2004, letter to Ariel Sharon: “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers,” Bush wrote, “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”
When President Obama rejected the terms of that letter, he not only damaged relations with Israel, but reinforced Palestinian delusions and helped ensure the failure of his peace initiatives. By reaffirming Bush’s statement, Trump can squelch the Palestinian expectation that the United States, UN, EU or some foreign entity will force Israel to withdraw to what are incorrectly referred to as the pre-1967 borders.
As in the case of recognizing Jerusalem, affirming that peace must take into account that demographic realities in the West Bank have changed, would be a statement of the obvious. Just as Israel will not evacuate Jerusalem, it will also not dismantle the large settlement blocs that are home to tens of thousands of Jews. It is nevertheless important to put the Palestinians and the international community on notice that the United States has no intention of forcing Israel, or allowing others to coerce Israel’s leaders, to withdraw from Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim or other major Jewish communities. At the same time, it is reasonable for Trump to express the expectation that Israel will be prepared to take risks for peace and make territorial compromises in exchange for secure and defensible borders beyond the armistice line.
Given their long history of rejecting peace, or any semblance of compromise, there is little reason to expect the Palestinians to accept reality. But the hope is that over time, the Palestinian people will tire of the empty rhetoric of their leaders and the self-defeating violence they instigate. With President Trump’s help, perhaps they will abandon their unrealistic goals. Only then will peace be possible.
In the meantime, Trump must be vigilant to ensure that his bureaucratic opponents do not sabotage his initiative. He should also pressure our allies to join in recognizing Jerusalem, and moving their embassies. If these countries are truly interested in avoiding violence and advancing peace, they will follow Trump’s lead, rather than giving the Palestinians the false hope that the international community will support their unreasonable demands.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the 2017 edition of “Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” “The Arab Lobby,” and the novel “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”