When the U.S. president officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and committed to move the U.S. embassy there, I expected my inbox to be overwhelmed by expressions of gratitude and joy from every Jewish organization.
Instead, reactions among Israel’s supporters to last Wednesday’s historic policy change have ranged mostly from strong opposition to tepid optimism. A favorite headline: “Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem Is Not a Disaster.” Glad to hear it.
One need not agree with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that the recognition is on a scale with the Balfour Declaration or the founding of the state to recognize the historic nature of this policy change. Simply acknowledging the obvious — Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years, and the capital of modern Israel for 70 years — represents a significant break from the failed policies of the past and gives new hope for reality-based policies to prevail in the future.
Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital departs from the international norms of appeasement that have only encouraged violence. From the earliest days of Jewish immigration in the late 19th century, through riots and wars and terrorism, Arab leaders successfully have used violent means to achieve political ends. Attacks on Israeli and American civilians, whether via Hamas rockets and tunnels or Fatah-fomented stabbings and car-rammings, remain signature tactics of Palestinian leaders who refuse to negotiate or even meet with Israeli leaders.
In the lead-up to last week’s announcement, warnings poured forth from heads of state, media pundits, and even Israel’s supporters, citing fear of retaliation as a reason to oppose the policy change. “It’s not worth the loss of life” was a common refrain, often referencing Palestinian leaders’ public call for “Days of Rage” as a reason to continue the status quo. By defying these warnings, the president sent a clear message that United States policy no longer will be shaped by fear and appeasement. The fact that the violent threats were mostly empty only reinforces the power of that message.
Wednesday’s speech went further with a promise of concrete (and steel and glass) change in the form of a new U.S. embassy in Israel’s capital. Though it will take years to secure a property and build the complex, the intent alone will do more to advance peace than any possible concessions by Israel, because it shows that Palestinian stalling has a price.
It hardly bears recounting that Israel has made offers of peace time and again and received obstinacy or worse in return. U.S. leaders have shown a commitment bordering on mania to achieve the ever-elusive ultimate deal. Palestinians, however, have played a waiting game, pocketing concessions and payments while holding fast to the dream of establishing Palestine “from the river to the sea.” Their leaders count on maintenance of the status quo, including Abbas remaining in power with international support despite his having failed to hold elections for more than a decade. Just last year, I listened while lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, meeting privately with a group of Jewish leaders, told us he will “never change his narrative” that any Jewish presence is illegitimate. Until now, there was no cost to pursuing this course.
Not that anyone harbors hope for an immediate strategy reversal from entrenched Palestinian kleptocrats. Indeed, Abbas’s peevish refusal to meet with Vice President Pence on his upcoming visit to Israel — who is he hurting here? — is of a piece with the past. Still, the message that U.S. policy is subject to change shows that intransigence has a cost, leading the way for a new era of diplomacy. Forget calls for Israeli confidence-building concessions; they’ve led only to failure and stagnation. Real progress demands doubt-building measures — steps to create uncertainty and thus push Palestinian leaders to negotiate now or risk a diminished bargaining position. By introducing consequences, the embassy move finally might inspire compromise by the only party still not at the table.
Inevitably, the change in U.S. policy will influence the policies of other nations and further strengthen Israel in the international arena. When even Israel’s strongest ally maintained the fiction that all of Jerusalem had TBD status, what hope could there be that any other nation would break the mold? The U.S. example already has encouraged nations that were predisposed to change their policy, as the Czech Republic and the Philippines did within hours of the U.S. announcement. Other nations will follow suit in due course.
No, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is not a disaster. Quite the opposite. It ends policies that appease violence, breaks the stranglehold of the status quo, and sets an example for other nations to root foreign policy in reality.
For Israel’s supporters, that’s plenty to celebrate.
Laura Fein of Teaneck would like to dedicate this column to the memory of her brother, Richard Fein, z”l, whose advocacy for recognition of Jerusalem and on behalf of terror victims made a lasting impact.