Stein: Merits of Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital
OpinionCenter for Israel Education

Stein: Merits of Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital

The CIE's Ken Stein says Trump’s remarks on Jerusalem were a skillfully crafted diplomatic statement.

Ken Stein

Ken Stein, an Emory professor of modern Israeli history, is the president of the Center for Israel Education ( and leads Emory’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, welcoming U.S. special envoy Jared Kushner to Israel on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. (Government Press Office photo)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, welcoming U.S. special envoy Jared Kushner to Israel on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. (Government Press Office photo)

Whether you hate or love President Donald Trump, don’t let it blind you to the meaning of the words he utters or the tweets he sends. Regardless of your emotions or strong political leanings, his words are decisively important; he is the president of the United States.

In keeping with the genuine skepticism of his remarks on domestic or foreign policy matters, his Dec. 6 proclamation to “officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” was met with a flurry of criticism.

Most opinion writers, bloggers, diplomats, media analysts and heads of state, many international organizations (United Nations, European Union, etc.), and even the pope vigorously challenged the wisdom of the United States taking a demonstrative position on Jerusalem. A group of American Jewish professors roundly criticized the statement, as did elements within the American Jewish community.

Some of the criticism on the Jerusalem statement was and is simply a combination of being anti-Israeli, anti-Netanyahu or anti-Trump. But seven of nine former U.S. ambassadors to Israel opposed the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem. There is a fear that prolonged violence will ensue. Will it?

Only a minority of writers, among them Caroline Glick in The Jerusalem Post, Bret Stephens in The New York Times, Israeli writers at Ynet and Israeli think tanks, wholeheartedly endorsed Trump’s remarks.

In my view, Trump’s remarks were not a haphazard statement electronically dispatched at 5 a.m.; they were not uttered with irony or sarcasm during an impromptu response to a press conference question, at a public gathering or at a town-hall meeting. Trump’s remarks were a skillfully crafted diplomatic statement.

What were the criticisms of his statement, and why did his statement have merit? What did he not say, promise, clarify or preclude?

A major criticism was that his statement was unilateral. The argument was made that the president received nothing in return for stating that “Israel is a sovereign nation with the right like every other sovereign nation to determine its own capital; acknowledging this is a fact is a necessary condition for achieving peace.”

Trump was lambasted for not receiving an open Israeli promise to stop settlements or start negotiations or do something else.

How do those who said he received nothing in return know what was promised privately to the United States by the Israelis or by Arab states? When Jared Kushner was in Saudi Arabia a month ago, how do we know what was said then or before or after? The muted Saudi reaction to the Trump statement might be a telltale sign.

Second, Arab and Palestinian leaders immediately said the United States disqualified itself as a “reliable mediator” in future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Really?

Trump said: “This decision is not intended, in any way, to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement. We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians. 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. … The United States would support a two-state solution if agreed by both sides. … I call on all parties to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, including the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif.”

Third, what infuriates Arab leaders and Trump’s critics is that by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he put the United States squarely in the position of reaffirming Israeli sovereignty as the state of the Jewish people. He put the United States in the position of challenging the international community’s sharp rebuke of Israel’s claim to a Jewish connection to the land of Israel and Jerusalem, as refuted by UNESCO decisions this year and earlier.

Further, he rebuked the abstentions by the Carter (1980) and Obama (2016) administrations on passed U.N. resolutions and others claiming that Jerusalem is “occupied territory.”

After the 1948 and 1967 wars and in 1980, Israel reaffirmed in several sovereign ways that Jerusalem is her capital; each time, Arab states and the United Nations have refused to accept Israel’s sovereign decision. Trump aligned with the rights of a sovereign state over the opinions of the international community.

Fourth, Trump’s choice of this moment to offer the Jerusalem statement had contemporary relevance. It may have been timed to engage those Christian sympathizers who might support Roy Moore’s candidacy in the Alabama senatorial election, but as Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi acknowledged on CNN on Sunday, Dec. 10, the Palestinians are in a bad way because Arab states are more concerned with their own well-being.

Palestinians themselves are fed up with their leadership. They suffer from ideological and physical divisions and do not have that glue they had as a community or support from Arab states when Yasser Arafat was the head of the PLO several dozen years ago.

Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid, a senior Arab editorial writer, noted on Dec. 9 that events unfold too quickly in the Middle East and that attention to the Palestinians is more fleeting than ever before. Mentioning extreme sectarianism, the Iranian-Saudi clashes, the very existence of the dire circumstances in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and Russia being on the move in the region, his conclusion was that “the Palestinian cause and Jerusalem are being used to serve personal agendas.”

Finally, what was significantly omitted in Trump’s speech?

He did not say when the embassy would be moved. He did not tell the U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv to move to Jerusalem now and use the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem as the temporary American Embassy until a permanent embassy is built. He did not say a future U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem could not be an address for both Palestinian and Israeli diplomats.

He did not prejudice the definitive disposition of Jerusalem in final negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. He did not preclude a two-state solution, nor did he remove the United States as a mediator. A lot of premature hand-wringing.

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