What everyone's getting wrong about the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem

Published on Wednesday, 9 May 2018 20:04
Written by Daniel B. Shapiro

The Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem has stirred up a variety of responses in the region and elsewhere. Some say that it means the death of hopes for peace. Others assert that it marks Israel’s final victory over the Palestinians. And still others insist that it justifies further Palestinian intransigence.

In fact, none of these statements is true.

Advocates of a two-state solution see the embassy move as a blunder by the United States that signals the death knell of prospects for peace. But the sky is not falling.

Moving the U.S. Embassy to a location in West Jerusalem is correct and reasonable. West Jerusalem has served as Israel’s capital since the founding of the state, and no plausible two-state map would change that. Our embassy’s presence in the city reinforces the legitimacy of historic Jewish ties to the city, which are too often denied by Palestinians.

Moreover, nothing about our embassy’s location there would prevent the emergence of a shared city with two capitals as part of a two-state solution.

Perhaps inadvertently, President Donald Trump’s decision has opened the door for much more frank discussion about an eventual Palestinian capital, and U.S. Embassy to Palestine, in East Jerusalem.

Long a taboo in both Israeli and American politics, the ice is beginning to break. White House officials reportedly informed Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman last month that Trump’s emerging peace plan would call for Israel to transfer four Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority. That’s a start.

The precise boundaries could be determined only in negotiations, and Israel would need to remain connected with key holy sites.

Those talks may not happen under the current Israeli and Palestinian leadership, but openly discussing this necessary aspect of a realistic, conflict-ending two-state solution - which remains the United States’ strategic objective - will prepare the ground for when there are leadership changes.

Meanwhile, triumphalists in Israel and the United States think that the embassy move means that Israel has “won” the conflict. (As Axios’s Barak Ravid has reported, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is now demanding that the Palestinians accept any offer Trump puts on the table, suggesting he shares this view.) But these declarations of victory are premature.

It is true that Israel is strategically stronger than ever, that its legitimacy is more widely recognized and that it enjoys gradual warming with a range of Arab states. These are all welcome developments. Yet however good that feels, the inexorable demographic dilemmas of how Israel can maintain both its Jewish and its democratic character while controlling all of the West Bank and its Palestinian population have not changed at all.

On this subject, the crown prince is a good example of the principle that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” His statements - which betray his limited understanding of Israeli-Palestinian final status issues, the realities of Palestinian politics and the limits of Saudi influence - may delude some in Israel that the hard decisions can be avoided. But they can’t, and eventually, a future Israeli government will have to make some wrenching choices. Ongoing expansion of settlements outside of blocs that could be accommodated in land swaps only makes those choices harder.

Even the crown prince acknowledges that the Saudis cannot normalize relations with Israel without meaningful progress toward a two-state solution.

Daniel B. Shapiro is distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Column on Wednesday, 9 May 2018 20:04. Updated: Wednesday, 9 May 2018 20:06.