Trump is right on Jerusalem

Mel Brooks fans remember that scene in the film “Blazing Saddles,” when Cleavon Little holds a gun to his head and threatens to shoot himself if he doesn’t get his way. President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel may have unmasked a Palestinian strategy that reminds me of that scene. (Spoiler alert: This may be a left-handed compliment to the president, in the political sense.)

There are few decisions by President Trump which I support. His divisive, damaging policies add layers of well-deserved skepticism, even when we may agree. But I believe that his recognition of Jerusalem is correct. There has always been strong bipartisan agreement on relocating the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

{mosads}I was one of 31 House members from both sides of the aisle who co-sponsored legislation supporting the move in 2011. For us, it was based on the fundamental belief that Jerusalem is the eternal and undivided capital of Israel, and that Israel’s adversaries have no right to exercise veto power over where we choose to locate our embassy.

More important than where in Israel our embassy stands is where in the world Palestinian negotiators are willing to sit for peace talks. Until now, those seats have been empty. Refusing to negotiate on Jerusalem, while at the same time insisting that the United States can’t locate its embassy there until negotiations conclude, preserves an endless strategic advantage for Palestinian leaders and offers no incentive to come to the table.

In fact, the president’s statement, when read carefully, isn’t quite as dramatic as it would seem. Yes, we recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but we don’t say East Jerusalem or West Jerusalem or both. Yes, we’ll move the embassy, but there’s no when, where or how. Don’t count on seeing the moving trucks idling in front of the U.S. embassy on Hayarkon Street any time soon.

The president may have thrown a bone to pro-Israel voters in America, but when they sink their teeth in, they’ll find it lacking in meat. My guess, based on overexposure to stockpiles of Republican hypocrisy, is that had President Obama issued the identical statement, many who gush in praise now may have picked it apart back then.

Wittingly or unwittingly, that may be the smartest aspect of the Trump  announcement. He hasn’t closed the door to negotiations on a two-state solution. He’s created an opening by suggesting to Palestinian leaders that time is not their ally, and that it’s in their interest to get serious about negotiating before time and policies pass them by. Instead of inciting violence that will end lives, they’d be better off restarting negotiations to ensure their future.

Of course, that may be their ultimate gambit: continuing to wait for the perfect deal that will never materialize, while rebuilding and strengthening their rockets in Gaza and southern Lebanon, escalating violence to which Israel must and will respond in order to protect its citizens, and hoping that world opinion builds with them.

The problem with all of this is that Israel currently enjoys a renaissance in bilateral cooperation in the Gulf, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. Israel remains and will remain in a position of strength vis-á-vis its neighbors. If that is the Palestinian strategy, it’s the equivalent of holding a gun to their own people’s heads to extricate themselves from negotiating. Time will tell how it ends up.

Meanwhile, we shouldn’t wait any longer to afford Israel the same diplomatic recognition that we extend to every other ally with which we maintain diplomatic relations (with the singular exception of the Hague, for entirely different reasons), and that is locating our embassy in its capital city.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. His next novel, “Big Guns,” will be published in April 2018.

Tags Diplomacy Donald Trump embassy Israel Jerusalem Palestine United States

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