Responses to Trump’s Moving the American Embassy Policy – Part I
I was proud to see that my analysis of Trump’s announcement to move the American embassy in the foreseeable future and to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as distributed Wednesday afternoon, generally held up very well with other analyses, with one clear exception. Though I accepted that the policy statement was nuanced, that it was impelled by domestic realities, I was out of synch with some commentators who thought the move was reasonable and realistic internationally as well as domestically. I was on the side of those who believed that Trump’s initiative in setting in motion steps to move the American embassy to Jerusalem and, more importantly, immediately recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, would add to the difficulty of advancing progress on the peace front.
This blog will primarily focus upon commentators who agreed with me with respect to the lack of realism internationally regarding the announcement. Usually, they went further and made the judgement that the move was ill-advised or considered it a clear setback to negotiations. Subsequently, not even counting the leadership of all the major political parties in Israel, I will deal with analysts who viewed the initiative as a reasonable one and generally welcome at this time.
In beginning with critics, I will not include any analysis of those who saw the move as part of Zionist and colonialist efforts to deny Palestinians their rights to self-determination and their rightful ownership of Palestine or other more moderate stances of countries in the Middle East who were outraged but still supported a two-state solution. In dealing with those who agreed with me on the international repercussions, I will say very little about those who were unequivocally apoplectic and loudly denounced and demonstrated against the new policy because they found it indecent and contrary to international law.
For example, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) organized a petition and a series of demonstrations declaring their shock and outrage. CJPME opposed any initiatives of countries to move their embassies to Jerusalem. They declared that, Trump ignored “all previous UN resolutions and an international consensus on Jerusalem.” Trump did not ignore previous resolutions. His statement was made in opposition to such resolutions, and specifically the one in December in the Security Council which President Obama did not veto which weighed in on the negotiations and declared ALL settlements on the other side of the old Green Line to be illegal. As I had analyzed the initiative, Trump’s move was intended to counter Barack Obama’s failure or refusal to use the veto.
Nor did I contend that Trump’s decision undermined all Middle East peace efforts calling for a negotiated settlement on the status of Jerusalem. Trump specifically qualified his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital by insisting that recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the plan to move the embassy did not address the issue of Jerusalem’s borders but that such a decision must result from negotiations between the two parties. I was interested in critics on the left who were more analytical, though a few were also clearly very upset.
I distinguish between analyses and appraisals. For although I might have agreed with some critics’ analyses with respect to the international dimensions, I disagreed on their ultimate evaluation. For whether one agreed or disagreed with Trump, whether one has a very low regard for Trump as I do, I thought the policy statement was well crafted and nuanced.
Let me begin with some of the very bright lights among the critics. I start with Peter Beinart who is very sharp analytically but seemed to be almost as apoplectic and hysterical about Trump’s announcement when I watched him on CNN as anti-Zionists. He had expressed his extreme displeasure in the past with respect to Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to build 2,500 more new housing units in parts of Jerusalem that were once on the other side of the Green Line as well as with Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Beinart repeatedly insisted that these moves were incendiary and would cost Israeli lives.
In contrast, Alan Dershowitz, who has a liberal pedigree but in the last few years has sounded like he was more on the right, argued that, “Violence should not determine policy.” Any instigated violence should be met by counter-measures by the police and the military. “The reason violence – whether rock-throwing or more lethal forms of terrorism – is used because it works… as a way to extort concessions from the world. And it works because policy makers often make or refrain from making controversial decisions based on the fear of violent reactions.”
For Dershowitz, unlike Beinart, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem was not unreasonable nor was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. According to Dershowitz, Jerusalem is and will remain Israel’s capital. It is a fact and not a matter for debate. When such moves explicitly insist that this in no way predetermines the boundaries of Jerusalem or who should have sovereignty over the Old City, for Dershowitz that is not only a reasonable move, but a prudent one.
For Dershowitz, it does not matter whether the threat of violence comes from Palestinians, from Islamic demonstrators in Malaysia or from settlers on the West Bank. Policy should not be determined by such threats. As an example, Dershowitz cites the threats and the actual violence that resulted when, in 2000-2001, President Bill Clinton and then Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Barak, put forth what was for Israel an extremely generous set of concessions. The threat – and the response: the Second Intifada! Dershowitz was even critical of the Israeli government for backing down under the threat of violence to its initiative in installing security cameras on what Jews call the Temple Mount (Har HaBáyit) and Muslims call Haram esh-Sharif. Dershowitz is fond of quoting Yitzhak Rabin. “We will pursue the peace process as if there no terrorism, and respond to terrorism as if there were no peace process.”
Other commentators supporting the Dershowitz position cite opposite moves that were far more widespread than recognizing the central site as special to Muslims as well as Jews. The UN General Assembly went further in the other direction in October of last year when it recognized the central holy site in Jerusalem as Muslim, supported Muslim claims and ignored Jewish ones.
The Dershowitz position could be questioned because it did not go far enough but also because it went too far in declaring Trump’s rationale to be reasonable. Was the diplomatic initiative reasonable? The peace offer of Barak was reasonable – whether or not one agreed with it. The installation of cameras on the Temple Mount (Har Habayit), however, broke an agreement between the Israeli authorities and the Muslims who administered the plaza of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Golden Dome. Israel had concurred that any changes with respect to the Temple Mount would take place as a product of consultations and joint initiatives. Unilateral actions on the part of Israelis, even those that on the surface seemed very reasonable, were read and interpreted as additional steps reducing Islamic authority on a site which they considered very holy.
Was the initiative to move the American embassy and to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, without prejudging the boundaries of that capital, unreasonable in breaking with previous agreements and seemingly both symbolically and on the ground advancing Israeli claims of sovereignty at the expense of Palestinian claims? That is the nub of the issue. America’s allies by and large took that position. At this time, such an initiative was “unhelpful”. The Czech Republic initially followed the Russian example of recognizing West Jerusalem as Israeli’s capital which, for many Israelis, seemed implicitly to deny Israeli claims on other parts of Jerusalem, even when qualified by assertions that the move did not signal any assessment on the ultimate boundaries of the capital of the Jewish state. In any case, the next day the Prime Minister rescinded the statement of the president of The Czech Republic.
Dershowitz’s argument in defence of the move and his rant against threats of violence, and Beinart’s apoplectic responses to the initiative and fears for “Jewish” lives, both depended on the assessment of a prior issue – was the initiative reasonable? More importantly, was it reasonable now? Canada was not agnostic on this question, even though the Canadian government refrained from criticizing the American initiative. Canada simply reiterated its position that any unilateral initiatives at this time would further complicate the difficulties in advancing the peace process and that our country would refrain from taking any unilateral steps.
The moderate and experienced negotiator on the Palestinian side, Saeb Erekat, backed up by Abbas, did not threaten violence and at least rhetorically called only for peaceful demonstrations. He did pronounce not only the peace process, but even the prospect of a two-state solution, dead. The only possibility, he insisted was now fostering a one state solution with equal rights for both Jews and Palestinians in the whole territory. However, he spoiled his threat by getting the facts wrong in asserting that Donald Trump had recognized a “united” Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Trump did no such thing.
Dershowitz asked all bystanders not to “be fooled by those who say that the two-state solution is dead or that it is time to adopt a one-state solution.” Why? Because under any resolution, “Jerusalem would be recognized as the capital of Israel and its holiest places would remain under Israeli control.” That may be a realist prophecy. That may even be a realistic policy. But since it was at the heart of the dispute over Jerusalem, it would be all the more reason not to signal a pre-emptive outcome at this time. Even Donald Trump never went that far in putting forth his position. If Donald Trump had done so, if he had kept his promise to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without qualifying that initiative as not preempting any outcome on the borders of Jerusalem that could result from an agreement, then a Palestinian rejection should be viewed as reasonable and not just “the latest excuse by Palestinian leaders to refuse to sit down, negotiate and make the painful compromises necessary for a complete resolution of the outstanding issues.”
However, Dershowitz offered another argument why an initiative, without the qualification of not predetermining the sovereignty over the holy sites, was the reasonable one. It goes back to the point I made at the beginning of this blog that Trump was indeed attentive to previous UN resolutions. “President Trump’s decision merely restores the balance that was undone by President Obama’s decision to engineer a one-sided Security Council Resolution that changed the status quo.” That is, of course, why I criticized the failure of the US, when Obama was already a lame-duck president, to veto the Security Council resolution that Israeli settlements were illegal. The motions of the Security Council, unlike those of the UN General Assembly, do have legal status. With the U.S. landmark decision not to join the other 14 votes in favour of declaring all settlements illegal but to abstain, an initiative was permitted to take place which did preempt declarations on the outcome of the negotiations.
The Obama White House had rationalized its abstention which had far more significance than Donald Trump’s moving the embassy or recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, again without predetermining the borders of Jerusalem. For one, it was accompanied by a press release explaining the American failure to veto the resolution was determined by “the absence of any meaningful peace process.” That meant that the US was declaring Israel to be the main culprit in sabotaging the peace process. But if one defended the Obama initiative and, thereby, its rationale that the peace process had reached a dead end, then Donald Trump’s initiative should have posed no problem since, unlike the UN resolution, there was no presumptions about a final outcome.
Of course there was a presumption in both moves. Both the Obama and the Trump initiatives signaled an understanding of who was to blame for the stalled peace process. The UN resolution went even further in weighing in, not only on the agent to blame, but on the substance of negotiations, for that resolution declared that areas of West Jerusalem, such as French Hill, illegal as well. The resolution stated that Israel’s settlements had been placed “on Palestinian territory,” that the area captured in the 1967 war and occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, was Palestinian, and the occupation had “no legal validity.” Though the resolution only demanded a halt to “all Israeli settlement activities” as “essential for salvaging the two-state solution,” and did not demand a roll-back of previous actions, it made the quest for a two-state solution even more difficult. For the process was now under an international determination that the settlements were illegal and Israel, whichever party formed the government, would resist participating in negotiations that, in advance, undermined the Israel position that the settlements were not illegal.
There was another voice on the left that criticized Trump’s initiative, not for its content, but for failing to demand any quid pro quo from the Israeli government for what is broadly considered to be a bold American move. Tom Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize- winning columnist for The New York Times, seemed to criticize the initiative, not for its substantive content, but for the failure to link the American concession to a demand that Israel halt its settlement activities. For Friedman, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital had been understood as a concession that would be offered in return for Israeli concessions on other issues, such as settlements. Trump had awarded Israel a prize a) at a time when Israel did not deserve it; b) without extracting balancing concessions; and c) while offering Palestinians nothing of consequence in exchange.
In fact, the Trump initiative had been accompanied by a number of prior moves in the opposite direction – the expansion of Israel building more housing units on territory on the other side of the Green Line, such as in Gilo, which, under any peace agreement, was expected by all parties to remain part of Israel. There were other moves – the downgrading of the PLO “embassy” in Washington, the withdrawal of financial support by Congress to the Palestinian Authority because of its implicit support for terrorism in awarding recognition and providing the families of these “martyrs” with pensions. This was seen as a move towards defining the PA as a supporter of terror. The ground was being laid for subjecting the PA to US sanctions.
To be continued – Those Who Applaud Trump’s Initiative
Tomorrow: to be continued – Plaudits for Trump’s Initiative