Of Course Jerusalem Is the Capital of Israel

President Donald Trump is expected Wednesday to do what his predecessors promised to do, and were then told was unhelpful, impossible, dangerous and wrong: recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

That this has taken the United States 70 years is astonishing, considering that Jerusalem has of course been the capital since Israel was founded in 1948. But for all those years, “experts”—not least in the State Department—have been arguing that such a decision will produce huge amounts of violence and harm the position of the United States in the region. President Harry Truman rejected their arguments in 1948, despite a stark personal challenge from his Secretary of State, George Marshall, and recognized the Jewish state 11 minutes after it declared its independence.

Trump is expected to do essentially the same thing: to choose truth and justice over fear, and refuse to bow to threats of violence.

In fact, Israel’s announcement of independence in 1948 was greeted with enormous violence: an attack on the fledgling Jewish state by Egypt, Jordan and Syria. That did not make Truman’s decision wrong, any more than mob violence or acts of terror today or tomorrow will make Trump’s decision wrong. The president reacted to Arab and other Palestinian predictions of violence with the contempt they deserve. Those “predictions” were in fact threats, and the president was absolutely right to face them down.

12-6_Trump_Israel President Donald Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September. Reuters

His decision does not foreclose the chances for peace. Whatever the final municipal borders Israelis decide upon, whatever final municipal borders and arrangements might emerge from peace negotiations, whatever else Jerusalem may some day be (including a Palestinian capital), there is one thing that is absolutely certain: Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Recognizing that closes no doors, if the Palestinians really want to open them. Once the angry speeches have been made by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and secretary general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's executive committee and former negotiator Saeb Erekat, once the posturing for political purposes is over and once a bit of time passes, negotiations can continue. Trump is not destroying his own peace efforts but grounding them in reality.

What are the objections to his decision, after all? Erekat was quoted this week protesting that an American president cannot decide Israel’s capital. Quite right—but neither can the PLO or the United Nations. Only Israel can, and it has. In peace negotiations, West Jerusalem is not in dispute anyway. It is where the Knesset, Supreme Court, president’s and prime minister’s offices are, and where they have always been.

The exact borders of the city and the areas to be under Israeli and Palestinian control are disputed, but Trump made no effort to decide those matters. The relocation of the U.S. embassy should now be a practical issue, dependent on the acquisition of a suitably large plot of land and the construction of a compound of office and residential facilities. This will take time; after the Cold War, about 10 years passed from our decision to build a new embassy in Berlin to the actual completion of the project. But the timing is far less important than the legal recognition that Jerusalem is the capital, and it is where the embassy belongs.

12-6_Trump_Netanyahu Trump embraces Netanyahu at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in May. Reuters

The refusal to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has for all these years been part of the campaign to refuse the Jewish state the legitimacy every other state gets. It makes Israel uniquely disadvantaged among nations—the only country in the entire world not permitted to choose its capital—giving a sense of impermanence and reduced rights.

This is precisely why Trump’s decision is right and is important. It sends a message: The Jewish people are there now and they will be there forever, and they are there by right and not by our sufferance.

Trump didn’t make Jerusalem the capital of Israel any more than the U.N. made Israel the Jewish state. He simply acknowledged a fact. Truth is the best basis for moving forward toward peace between Israel and its neighbors, and between Israel and the world.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national security adviser. He is the author of Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring.

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