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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  1. JW: “Israel has given the Palestinians every chance but it is clear they don’t want to accept peace on terms acceptable to Israel”……..

    And we both agree that you have so very cogently set out those “terms acceptable to Israel”.

    Which are: the Palestinians must admit that they do not exist, but nonetheless agree to their own unconditional surrender. After which they must all pack up and move across the Jordan River.

    They have to do that so that Israel is then free to:
    (a) formally annex all the territory captured during the 1967 war while
    (b) not having to annex any of the people who are currently living on in that territory.

    Hmmmm, funny, while I can see that such an outcome would be “acceptable” to you and your tribesmen, I’m not at all sure why such an outcome would tempt any Palestinian to sign.

    They’re funny that way…… can’t imagine why.

    JW: ….”so that means it must be settled by force”

    I’m not sure what part of the phrase “Emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” you are struggling with, Jeffrey.

    Is it the fact that what you propose is illegal under international humanitarian law, or is it that international humanitarian law outlaws what you are proposing?

    This is very simple, Jeffrey: Israel’s seizure of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip made it an OCCUPYING power, but the establishment of such an occupation did not grant Israel any sovereignty over those occupied territories.

    And despite what you so obviously think there is no way that Israel can change itself into the sovereign “by force”, precisely because international law outlaws “the acquisition of territory by force”.

    So if Israel wants to be anything more than an endless occupier of territory that does not belong to it then Israel needs the agreement of those very Palestinians whose existence you deny.

    Which means that Israel has to come up with some *give* along with its *take”.

    Which is where there is a problem, because Israel has the same mindset that you have i.e. it’s all Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!

  2. Yeah Wrong….It’s been fun but I must move on. This is a leftist blog so probably your view is favored, as incoherent and hypocritical as I have demonstrated.

    Guess it is all tribal but that is the state of the world. We are nowhere close to a United Earth.

    The West Bank is disputed land. The only country it was seized from is Jordan, which renounced its claim in the 1980’s. Israel is free to annex the land if it sees fit. There is no “world judge” to enforce “international law,” which itself is purely consensual among nations. There is morality and good and evil however, and most Americans (and maybe most Australians) still believe Israel is good and the Muslim Arabs are not so good.

    Your nation has the same issues as Europe and you will restrict Muslim immigration. Gee, pretty amazing that you realize you don’t want to live in a Muslim dominated country and expect Israel to stick one in its heartland. No thanks.

    In my scenario the Palestinians will be compelled to accept a new approach just like the Japs were but without the nukes. They will get over it and even before they do, you and the rest of the world will get over it. In fact, they will benefit from it.

    See you around.

  3. @JW

    “Japs”. It took a while, but you eventually have come out with a racist term of abuse.

  4. JW: “Guess it is all tribal but that is the state of the world. We are nowhere close to a United Earth.”

    There is, of course, absolutely no reason why Jeffrey must project his own mindset onto “the world”. Very clearly “the world” has a different perspective on this issue than does Jeffrey’s little tribe.

    JW: “The West Bank is disputed land.”

    Words as a loose bowel movement, utterly devoid of meaning.

    This is an indisputable fact: Israel does not “dispute” ownership of this occupied territory, with the singular exception of Jerusalem.

    That is axiomatic, because Israel refuses to announce that it has annexed that territory, or even that it has extended “Israeli law” to that territory.

    Which means that this is also axiomatic: Israel doesn’t *claim* *that* *the* *territory* *belongs* *to* *Israel*, which would indeed be the very definition of a “territorial dispute”:

    Israel’s argument is something altogether different: it is insisting that the Palestinian must cede the territory to Israel as the price they must pay before Israel will agree that it will end the occupation.

    That’s not a “territorial dispute”, Jeffrey, that is nothing more nor less than “extortion”.

    JW: ” The only country it was seized from is Jordan, which renounced its claim in the 1980’s.”

    *sigh* The “missing revisioner” argument, which Israel stopped arguing, oh, back in the 1980’s.

    Jeffrey, this is a belligerent occupation. It DOESN’T MATTER who the territory was seized from, all that matters is that Israel was the country that seized control of this territory.

    JW: ” Israel is free to annex the land if it sees fit.”

    *sigh* Israel is the “occupying power”, and that brings with it the prohibitions under int’l law regarding “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and the prohibition on the colonization of occupied territory.

    Attempting either is a war crime, Jeffrey.

    JW: ” There is no “world judge” to enforce “international law,” which itself is purely consensual among nations.”

    Actually, quite untrue. If Israel thought it had a case then it could take this issue to the International Court of Justice as a “contentious issue”, and any judgement by that court would be legally binding on the parties to the case.

    But Israel knows that this would be a hopeless brief, which is why it refuses to bring the case to the court.

    It much prefers to hide behind Uncle Sam’s coat-tails, but even Uncle Sam won’t go along with a unilateral annexation of this territory by Israel.

    No matter how much lipstick Israel smeared on that pig, it’d still be a pig.

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