It would be hard to say that anyone in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, or in the Israeli government in general, was at all surprised by Thursday’s announcement of President Donald Trump’s decision to sign the presidential waiver delaying the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Since January 20, when Trump refrained from mentioning the issue in his inaugural speech, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisers began to see that this was the direction it was going.
What is perhaps more surprising since Trump entered the Oval Office is the consistency so far of his actions and declarations with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The U.S. president said he wanted to achieve “the ultimate deal” that would end the “war that never ends” between the parties; he appointed a special emissary for the peace process; he demanded and received from Netanyahu restraint on construction in the settlements; he demanded and received from Netanyahu economic measures for the Palestinians in the West Bank; and he declared that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would contribute to peace in the Middle East and the entire world.
Trump left his campaign promises about Jerusalem outside the door of the Oval Office. Like all his predecessors, he understood that Jerusalem is a barrel of political and security explosives. Like all his predecessors, he realized that if he wants to promote “the ultimate deal” between the Israelis and Palestinians, at least for now he’ll have to leave the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Trump’s cautious approach to the issue of Jerusalem stood out during his visit to the city about a week and a half ago. In his speech at the Israel Museum he said important and correct things about the deep, millennia-old link between the Jewish people and Jerusalem. But in his actions he showed pragmatism and an understanding that reality in the city in 2017 is not the same as it was in King David’s time.
Contrary to the hopes of many on the Israeli right, Trump did not declare during his visit that Jerusalem is the united capital of Israel, and he even refrained from taking a position on sovereignty in the city. He did the same in his visit to the Western Wall, which he made unaccompanied by any Israeli government official. Trump related to Jerusalem as ex-territorial. A kind of Vatican of the three monotheistic religions. The only thing missing was for him to have said that sovereignty at the holy places belongs to God.
The White House announcement of Trump’s decision to sign the waiver included a direct connection between a move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in the future and a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The achievement of that agreement was defined in the statement as an American national security interest. The statement was worded in language that the prime minister understands best, inherent in which is his well-known slogan: If they give, they’ll get, if they don’t give, they won’t get.
Trump reminded Netanyahu that nothing is free, at least not with Trump. The message in the White House statement was that if the prime minister wants a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, the road to it passes through a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has known this very well for a few months now. Not for nothing did he make clear to Trump that despite his desire to see the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem, he is not prepared to pay for it in concessions to the Palestinians.
It was touching to read the responses of the right-wing politicians to the White House announcement about the embassy. How easy it was for Trump to enchant them with beautiful words and caresses in his speech last week, when in essence nothing has changed. The Likud and Habayit Hayehudi ministers, whom reality has slapped in the face every week since January 20, were handed another disappointment. And yet they were very careful not to attack the U.S. president. All of those ministers who excoriated former President Barack Obama day in and day out, responded like Polish diplomats and expressed “disappointment” at Trump’s decision.
The response Netanyahu published yesterday was also amazing in the politeness of its wording. The prime minister, who has accustomed us to his tongue-lashings of foreign leaders who did not do as he wishes, responded to the Trump’s decision with uncharacteristic reverence. Netanyahu stressed that not moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem “contributes to the Palestinian illusion that the Jewish people and their country have no connection to Jerusalem. This is not true at all.” If anything, it is Netanyahu’s position that contributes to the illusion of the right-wing government that international legitimacy for Israel’s capital can be achieved other than by means of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
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