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Days of Media Rage about Jerusalem

I lived in Jerusalem, Israel, for two happy years, and much of my work ever since has involved U.S.-Israel relations. I should know better, yet still I am surprised at the rending of garments and apocalyptic predictions pouring forth from western pundits over something that will not change a single stone in the holy city, or a single person’s access to its holy sites, or a single border—and that overwhelming majorities of Congress and virtually every president and presidential candidate has endorsed for decades. Chalk it up in part to the hysteria that has characterized our political debates in the past two years, and also in part to the enormous influence that former Obama administration officials have in setting media narratives and frames for covering issues on which the current president repudiates the approach of the previous one. So here are some notes of calm, in no particular order:

  1. One of the first arguments critics make against recognizing Jerusalem is that it would so anger the Palestinians that the peace process would never recover. But the Palestinians have rejected every offer of statehood, and have not been willing to engage in real talks with Israel since the Bush administration. They’re already unwilling to negotiate, and were especially unwilling during the Obama years, when the president was openly acting as their advocate. If they are so incensed that the United States is finally acknowledging the plain fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel that they will never talk again, it tells us that a negotiated agreement was never possible in the first place. Despite the likelihood of protests and perhaps some violence in the next few days, U.S. recognition of Jerusalem will actually promote peace in the long run because it will help disabuse the Arab world of its fantasy of Israeli impermanence. It will also show Palestinians for the very first time that their rejectionism has costs, and will not permanently paralyze U.S. policy toward Israel. The cause of peace is weakened so long as the Arab self-delusion about Israel’s impermanence is encouraged by U.S. policy.
  2. Another argument common among Middle East pseudo-sophisticates is that recognizing Jerusalem would drive a wedge between Israel and the Arab states, right at the moment when the threat from Iran is bringing them together. This sounds plausible, but the opposite is probably true. The Arab states’ recent rapprochement with Israel is not ideological—it is expedient, because the Arabs are comparatively weak and are seeking protection from a stronger power. Israel’s embrace of U.S. recognition doesn’t change this reality. Indeed, by confidently demonstrating its willingness to assume risk, and by showing its closeness to America, Israel’s attractiveness to the Arab states who need its help against Iran only increases. Arab regimes will howl in public, but in private they will understand that only a strong, determined country can protect them. And that understanding will draw them closer to Israel.
  3. The most craven argument against recognition is that it will spark Arab violence. This argument is being aggressively promoted by former Obama administration officials and their media allies, and by Palestinian and Jordanian officials, who barely attempt to conceal their mau-mauing of western countries with threats of rioting and terrorism. The United States’ response to this tactic should be to tell them to pound sand. The United States cannot allow Middle Eastern rent-a-mobs to exercise a veto over our foreign policy, especially not on an issue in which the threat of violence originates in the rank anti-Semitism of Islamists who deny Jewish history in Israel and Jewish political rights in the region. If the King of Jordan wants to send crowds of his subjects into the streets to riot, that is his problem. What has been pathetic and depressing to witness is the astounding number of western reporters and pundits who are happy to retail a messaging campaign that is barely distinguishable from blackmail.

  1. Speaking of westerners who are happy to promote Islamist blackmail: The hypocrisy of their sudden concern for violence in the Middle East can only be described as shameless. The very same people—the Obama administration officials and their media and think tank friends—who made endless excuses for doing nothing about the mass slaughter in Syria or Iran’s takeover of Iraq/fueling of war in Yemen, and who cheered the nuclear deal with Iran, which filled the coffers of the leading state sponsor of terror with billions and put it on a glide path to nuclear weapons—these very same people are now so concerned about peace and stability in the Middle East that they need fainting couches over a speech that recognizes Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. How stupid do they think we are?

A final thought: what to make of the hysterics from the peace-process guild, that class of Washington analysts, diplomats, and former officials who have made careers of attempting to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace? Their supercilious denunciations of Trump’s announcement mask an undercurrent of fear – fear for the loss of their own status. They understand, I think, that for them, recognizing Jerusalem represents much more than a discrete policy change. It raises fundamental questions about a cherished multi-decade American diplomatic project, one that has been a pillar of Democratic foreign policy since the early 1990s.

Through three administrations, the script has remained the same: America brokers talks in which the parties reach compromises on the issues of Jerusalem, borders, refugees, settlements, and security, at which point an agreement is signed and everyone involved receives the Nobel Peace Prize and recognition in history as consequential statesmen. Needless to say, this script hasn’t worked. There is not a single issue on which the two sides have ever come close to reaching an agreement.

But for the peace process guild, that’s not a problem. The important thing is to keep trying, to remain guardians of the issue, and to treat alternative approaches with so much contempt and ridicule that they are never given serious consideration.

In recognizing Jerusalem, Trump is showing that this tired script need not be followed—and that this tired guild need not be obeyed. The peace process community correctly recognizes that Trump’s announcement is not just a policy change, but an attack on their authority. And so they are desperate for it to fail, and one senses based on their breathless tweeting over the past few days that many in this community would experience enormous schadenfreude should the coming days be marked by rioting and terror. Any other outcome makes them look like fearmongers, and delegitimizes the other counsel they dispense.

If a president can show that adherence to the traditional confines of the peace process is unnecessary on Jerusalem, why can’t he do it on other issues? Trump’s announcement is not significant in terms of changing facts on the ground, because Jerusalem has always been Israel’s capital. But it may be very significant for the peace process and the network of experts, think tanks, journalists, politicians, diplomats, and ex-officials who have so much vanity and prestige invested in protecting a failed understanding of the region.