President Trump’s provocative decision to authorize the transfer of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which he communicated in an importantly nuanced speech on December 6, appears calculated to appease the Israeli settler lobby with what amounts to a small concession in reality.
The embassy transfer fulfills a longstanding request of the Israeli government and would inevitably have been part of any foreseeable peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. Although anger on this issue is understandable, given that the decision was not coupled with any concession to the Palestinians, this shift in the status quo should be weighed within the context of Trump’s full remarks.
In particular, the president reaffirmed, “We are not taking a position [on] any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.”
He continued, “The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides…. In the meantime, I call on all parties to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites.”
Nevertheless, if the US declines to exert substantive pressure on Israel, which will require support from a mobilized American public given the Israeli settler lobby’s effective political capture of Congress on this issue, Israel will simply humiliate Trump as it did Obama.
American policymakers from both parties have been cynically claiming that they cannot do more than encourage Israelis and Palestinians to make necessary compromises for peace. While it’s true that the United States cannot ultimately compel them to do so, it has critical diplomatic and economic leverage over both sides. The US has exerted this leverage on the Palestinians by maintaining tight control over the foreign economic aid on which the Palestinian Authority depends. The US has consistently declined to use the billions of dollars per year in economic aid that it provides to Israel to persuade it to roll back its creeping annexation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, however, because of the power of the Israeli settler lobby.
Imagine the absurdity of any US policymaker attempting to make the same argument in the context of the Iran nuclear negotiations or Iran’s aggressive military advances against Israel—“the US can encourage Iran not to produce nuclear weapons or attempt to annihilate the state of Israel but it can’t force it to do so.” Such a statement would be grounds for impeachment or overwhelming public pressure to resign.
Israel is of course a US ally and Iran is an adversary, but when allies act in ways that are contrary to US interests and quiet diplomatic nudging demonstrably and consistently fails to persuade them to change course, less desirable measures become necessary despite the friction they will inevitably create. Of course it is incumbent upon the Muslim world—including Iran, the most stubborn government within that world—to respect Israel’s historical claims to Jerusalem as well, which are in fact the oldest and strongest.
In an ideal world, all sides might recognize what a colossally tragic monument to human narcissism Jerusalem has become and might reconsider the wisdom of the UN’s 1947 plan to retain effective sovereignty over it while respecting the right of all to worship there. Unfortunately we do not live in such a world, and so, roughly 1,000 years after the Crusades, the conflicts for control over this city, profaned by its self-righteous combatants, continue intolerably into the nuclear age.