Is Trump’s Jerusalem Decision Worth The Backlash?

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

President Donald Trump has announced that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel and begin the process of moving the US Embassy there from its current location in Tel Aviv.

Let’s start with a few basic facts: Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel. It is the seat of government, where foreign leaders meet with the prime minister, where the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, sits, etc.

The reason it is not so recognized by foreign powers is nominally because Jerusalem is a disputed territory. Whether Jerusalem in its entirety is disputed or simply that portion of Jerusalem captured by Israel after the 1967 Six Day War is another question.

Reasonable people may suggest that only East Jerusalem is disputed, and Donald Trump is basing his decision to move the Embassy on that assessment. But states that have not recognized Israel — particularly in the Muslim world — do not recognize Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem (or for that matter, any part of “Palestine”).

So how do we feel about recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel?

An odd word to use, perhaps. “Feel” is not really a foreign policy judgement. And yet, this is an emotional choice, more about feelings than about geostrategic considerations, even as it is clear there will be real strategic implications from the choice.

Naysayers insist this move will prejudice peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Well, OK. Because those have been fruitful lo these seven decades since the creation of modern Israel.

GettyImages-82408846 An Israeli flag flies from the Kidmat Zion Jewish settlement community on the outskirts of the Arab village of Abu Dis, where the Old City with its golden Dome of the Rock Islamic shrine is seen in the background, August 18, 2008 in East Jerusalem, Israel. David Silverman/Getty

Advocates will counter that there is no peace that contemplates the handover of West Jerusalem (which does not include the Old City of Jerusalem, the Western, or Wailing, Wall, or the Temple Mount, holy to Muslims). Fair enough, but there’s a reason there are no embassies in even the western portion of Jerusalem. Changing the status quo is always a risk.

The bottom line is that Jerusalem is more a symbol than a territorial negotiation. And Talmudic debates about the relative holiness of the Temple Mount, or Haram el Sharif to Muslims, versus the established holiness of the site to the Second Temple to Jews, are just that. Talmudic.

These are religious matters, and should not factor into diplomatic or political negotiations. Why? Because diplomats have no place adjudicating holiness. Seems obvious, no?

So why are we fussing about this Trump decision? Partly because many do not in fact accept the legitimacy of Israeli rule over any part of Jerusalem, an argument that should be unacceptable to Americans.

Indeed, many of us suspect that intransigence over Israeli sovereignty is latent anti-Semitism masquerading as thoughtful diplomacy. Dispensing with that side of the argument seems a good reason to move the Embassy and recognize the capital.

But there’s another factor here: the strange role of the president’s son in law, Jared Kushner, with his reported negotiations to craft a “grand bargain” between Israel and the Arabs.

We worry that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and that together with the young proto-King of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, he is making decisions that will end in tears and worse for all concerned.

We worry that Donald Trump isn’t thinking through his moves, and won’t know how to react in the face of a backlash.

We worry that declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel may not be worth the strife that could come.

Certainly, having watched the tiny Jewish state develop and prosper over the decades, braving the worst that the Arab world and the Palestinians had to offer, there is a feeling of satisfaction that an American president, even this one, is dispensing with the mealy-mouthed platitudes of Middle East peacemakers past.

Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel. It still may become a capital for a Palestinian state one day.

Maybe a little honesty in foreign policy will be a good thing. Maybe not. We shall see, soon enough.

Danielle Pletka is senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Join the Discussion