Don’t Mess with Jerusalem

by James J. Zogby

In just a matter of days, President-elect Donald Trump will have to decide on whether or not to make good on his promise to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As we approach Inauguration Day, liberal and conservative commentators, alike, have offered a number of ideas as to how he can proceed. Ranging from “too cute by half” to just plain dumb, they should all be rejected. More to the point, all of the proposals I have seen focus exclusively on Israeli concerns, ignoring or giving short shrift to Palestinian and broader Arab or Muslim concerns and sensitivities. 

On the one side, there are proposals from hardliners who advise Trump to just go ahead and make the move. They argue that in fulfilling his campaign promise he will appease his base and gain international respect for being a strong and decisive leader. They dismiss Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim opinions, relying on the false assumptions that there is diminished concern across the Arab World for the Palestinian issue or making the racist case that Arabs respect strength and will ultimately become reconciled to a US move.

Then there are a number of “clever” proposals that assume that the “move” can be finessed in ways that will, in effect, fool both Israelis and Palestinians. One has the new US ambassador living and working in Jerusalem, while keeping the “official” US Embassy in Tel Aviv. Another suggests that the US can couple moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem with opening a US liaison office in Ramallah, while promising to study opening a Embassy for a future Palestinian state in East Jerusalem.

No one should be fooled. None of these proposals will work. Those who think that Arabs and Muslims will simply bow down before a Trumpian display of decisive strength are playing with fire. It’s true that the region is divided and distracted by the unraveling consequences of the “Arab Spring”, but messing with Jerusalem would be the catalyst for a focused and unified Arab and Muslim response. There would be massive unrest across the region and demands for a response. Should governments fail to act, it would be provide revolutionary Iran and extremist Sunni groups the opening they want to discredit those governments and further destabilize the region.

Palestine may have dropped off the radar for a time, but it remains “the open wound in the heart, that never heals.” Violating Jerusalem and unrest in the occupied Palestinian lands would rip the scab off that wound reminding Arabs of their vulnerability and their inability to control their history in the face of betrayal by the West. Ignore this passion and there will be consequences.

The same goes for the “cute” proposals. They will fool no one. Israeli hardliners will not accept a clever finesse. And should the US then push back by protesting that the “move” is real—the Arab side will be as infuriated as if it were real. The lesson is “don’t play with fire if you’re not ready to get burned.” Jerusalem is not to be messed with.

The problem with discussions about Jerusalem in the US is that the issue is largely viewed only through the Israeli/Jewish lens. The Israeli claim to the city and their historical narrative is the accepted framework through which the issue is understood. After the recent UN Security Council vote, US press reports quoted the Israeli outrage that the resolution was anti-Semitic because it acted as if East Jerusalem were occupied territory and not “Israel’s eternal capital.” This claim was presented repeatedly in the press and by Members of Congress without rebuttal.

For Palestinians and Arabs the issue of Jerusalem is complex, deeply personal, and completely ignored in the US. To be sure, the city is sacred. It is the third holiest site in Islam and it is home of the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Sepulcher.

But Jerusalem is also the home of hundreds of thousands of captive Palestinians who are economically strangled and denied fundamental human rights. What Israel calls East Jerusalem is actually a substantial swatch of land extending miles into the West Bank in which 22 Palestinian villages have been engulfed. Their lands have been confiscated to make way for Jewish only colonies (now euphemistically termed “neighborhoods”). These ancient Arab villages are now surrounded by Jewish-only settlements and are literally being choked to death.

More than this, it is important to recall that Jerusalem was also the heart of the West Bank. It was the metropole, housing major institutions that provided education, health care, cultural events, and social services for the entire Palestinian community. When Israel closed off Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank (and then built the wall further isolating the people from their hub) the consequences were devastating. Palestinians outside the Wall lost access to basic services and employment. Palestinians inside were also cut off, becoming increasingly impoverished. I have suggested that to understand the impact, imagine if the State of Maryland were to claim Washington and all the area with the Beltway as its own and then deny access to the city to millions of Virginians who had previously worked, shopped, or received services in Washington.

Because Palestinians have seen how Israel has dealt with Bethlehem and Hebron, they can see the same pattern playing out producing the same future for Jerusalem—a heavy-handed occupier, steadily dispossessing them of their land and rights, establishing “facts on the ground”, and ultimately taking full control and irreversibly transforming the city.

As a result, Palestinians are on edge. Moving the embassy or even pretending to do so would push them over—igniting a spark that would set the region aflame. My advice to the new administration—forget your promises and ignore both the “cute” and dumb proposals you have received and don’t mess with Jerusalem.

James J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute.

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19 Comments

  1. Yeah Wrong. Nothing Israel has done is “calculated” to destroy the Arab people as a whole. Using your definition if Israel kills one Arab terrorist then it is genocide. Using your definition the USA police are committing genocide on Blacks because a few hundred criminals are killed every year. In fact, using your definition, the PLO and other Arab terrorist groups are committing genocide of Jews since they have killed many Jews in terrorist attacks and want to make it impossible for Jews to live in peace in their ancestral homeland.

    You see how the leftist mind is prone to irrational reasoning and easily rebuked?

  2. JW: “Nothing Israel has done is “calculated” to destroy the Arab people as a whole”

    Straw man. Everyone should note that Jeffrey’s weasel-words for today are “the Arab people as a whole”.

    Nobody but you is talking about “the Arabs”, Jeffrey. Everyone else is talking about “the Palestinians”.

    JW: “Using your definition if Israel kills one Arab terrorist then it is genocide.”

    It’s not *my* definition, it’s the definition that is enshrined in international law.

    And it is simply impossible to take the Rome Statute’s definition of “genocide” and “use it” to claim that the killing on “one Arab terrorist” is genocide.

    That’s not “genocide”, but the claim that it is does have a name: “hyperbole”.

    JW: “In fact, using your definition, the PLO and other Arab terrorist groups are committing genocide of Jews since they have killed many Jews in terrorist attacks and want to make it impossible for Jews to live in peace in their ancestral homeland.”

    This is a fact: in 1988 the leader of the PLO exchanged letters with the leader of the Government of Israel, and in those letters only *one* of those two organizations unconditionally recognized the right of the other to exist in peace and security within a sovereign state.

    Your starter for 10, Jeffrey: can you name the organization that gave that unconditional recognition?

    (Hint: if you answered with “the government of Israel” then you’d be wrong).

    JW: “You see how the leftist mind is prone to irrational reasoning and easily rebuked?”

    The rightist mind appears to be befuddled, so much so that it mistakes the word “rebuked” for “rebutted”.

    “Rebuking” simply means upbraiding someone for saying something you don’t like.
    “Rebutting” means that you are actually making a dent in my facts.

    Looking again….
    Looking again….

    Nope, you don’t appear to have landed any punches at all – certainly none that have put a dent in any of my statements.

    Care to try again?

  3. Yeah wrong, like most leftists you just make things up. Never has the term “genocide” been applied to a territorial dispute such as the Israeli-Arab conflict where each side has killed a number of civilians. First of all, the Palestinians were invented in the 1960s as a political tool. There is no history of an Arab nation called Palestine. The region was renamed Palestine by the Romans after they routed out the Jews, as you well know. Thereafter, anyone living in area including Jews, Arabs or others could be called a Palestinian. The Jewish publication Jerusalem Post was called the Palestine Post.

    So you have created a fictional Arab people–Palestinians–and now you accuse the Jewish people in Israel (many of whose ancestors were killed in a real genocide) of genocide. Classic Saul Alinsky.

    Israel needs to move on from haters like you who will use any sophistry or bogus interpretation of so-called “International Law,” to eliminate the Jewish state.

    Israel has in the past agreed to have an Arab state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza and the Arabs have never “unconditionally” agreed to a Jewish state in Israel. But I bet that’s not the answer you were looking for. At this point, there is no way to trust the Palestinian leaders, who are not united in any event. Their people are too hateful, violent and twisted.

    You can blather all you want but you won’t be the one living under the gun if Israel was stupid enough to allow another dysfunctional, violent Muslim state to be created on its border ala Gaza and the Hezbollah mini-state in Lebanon.

    I suspect you are not necessarily against Jews, but you just prefer them to be ghetto Jews endlessly at the mercy of the particular dictator of their host state, not to defend themselves and assert their own sovereignty. That has not worked out well in the past and those Jews are dead.

  4. JW: “like most leftists you just make things up. Never has the term “genocide” been applied to a territorial dispute such as the Israeli-Arab conflict where each side has killed a number of civilians.”

    Straw man. Nobody but Jeffrey is applying the term “genocide” to “a territorial dispute such as the Israeli-Arab conflict where each side has killed a number of civilians”.

    Everyone else is applying the term “genocide” to Israel’s act of colonizing the occupied territories in an attempt to squeeze the Palestinians out of existence.

    The Six Day War happened 50 years ago, Jeffrey. It’s history. What concerns people now is this Israeli colonial project, which is still ongoing.

    Get. With. The. Program.

    JW: “First of all, the Palestinians were invented in the 1960s as a political tool.”

    Jeffrey, you might want to sit down, because this is probably going to come as a shock to you, but the League of Nations handed the UK a Mandate for PALESTINE in….. 1922.

    You might want to go and have a look at the text of that Mandate. In particular Article 7.

    JW: “There is no history of an Arab nation called Palestine.”

    Red Herring. There is no history of a Spanish nation called Basque, but nobody disputes that the Basque people exist.

    I will also like to point out that the text of the Mandate for Palestine describes Palestine as a “country” no less than ten times.

    You have read it, correct?

    JW: “So you have created a fictional Arab people–Palestinians–and now you accuse the Jewish people in Israel (many of whose ancestors were killed in a real genocide) of genocide. Classic Saul Alinsky”

    I will now ask Jeffrey to put take off his tribal blinkers and consider this thought: nobody OUTSIDE an ethnic group gets to decide if that ethnic group does/doesn’t exist.

    That’s the thing about ethnicity – someone like Jeffrey doesn’t get to rule on whether the Palestinians exist as a ethnicity or a nationality, any more than I – or Abbas, or whoever – gets to rule on Who Is A Jew.

    That’s for The Jews to decide amongst themselves
    That’s for The Palestinians to decide amongst themselves.

    Any attempt by an outsider to decide that question in the negative looks mighty like genocide to me.

    But not to you, hey, Jeffrey? Must be a tribal thing…..

  5. JW: “You can blather all you want but you won’t be the one living under the gun if Israel was stupid enough to allow another dysfunctional, violent Muslim state to be created on its border ala Gaza and the Hezbollah mini-state in Lebanon. ”

    I’m genuinely curious, Jeffrey: what do you consider a “belligerent occupation” to involve, if it doesn’t involve the Palestinians being “the one living under the gun”?

    What was that old saying about motes and beams?

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