President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is absolutely the right decision for one reason above all others: because Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
Whatever the final municipal borders Israelis decide upon, whatever final municipal borders and arrangements might emerge from peace negotiations, whatever else Jerusalem may some day be (including a Palestinian capital) there is one thing that is absolutely certain: Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
The anomaly is not that Donald Trump recognized this but that it has not happened until this week. The reason is obvious: the fear that Arab states and Palestinians would object.
In the Bush administration we confronted a similar issue when President George W. Bush contemplated stating, as he finally did in his April 14, 2004 exchange of letters with Ariel Sharon, that Israel would keep the major settlement blocks and that there was no "right of return" to Israel for Palestinian "refugees."
We knew there would be ferocious objections, but we also knew that Bush would be stating facts - he would be telling the truth. Critics said: "You will make peace impossible" - but we knew the opposite was true: lies and evasions make peace impossible. Telling the truth brings it closer.
Once the angry speeches have been made by Abbas, Erekat, and others, once a bit of time passes, negotiations can continue just as they did after the Bush-Sharon letters.
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Trump is not destroying his own peace efforts but grounding them in reality. And he has done one other important thing: reacted to Arab and other Palestinian predictions of violence with the contempt they deserve. Those "predictions" were in fact threats, and the President was absolutely right to face them down.
What are the objections, after all?
Saeb Erekat was quoted this week protesting that an American president cannot decide Israel’s capital. Quite right—but neither can the PLO or the UN. Only Israel can, and it has.
In peace negotiations, West Jerusalem is not in dispute anyway. The exact borders of the city and the areas to be under Israeli and Palestinian control are disputed, but Trump made no effort to decide those matters. The relocation of the U.S. Embassy should now be a practical issue, dependent on the acquisition of a suitable large plot of land and the construction of a compound of office and residential facilities. This will take years, but is far less important than the legal recognition that Jerusalem is the capital and it is where the Embassy belongs.
Why does this decision advance peace?
Like the Bush decision in 2004, it tells Palestinians and Arab governments to respect reality and negotiate over serious issues. Bush was in essence saying, if you are serious about peace you will not start by arguing that Maale Adumim must be abandoned or that every Palestinian refugee and his or her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren must have the option to move to Haifa. That is nonsense.
Similarly, in any peace talks there will be no discussion of moving the Knesset or the prime minister’s office or relocating the President’s House from HaNasi Street to Tel Aviv. If you are serious about peace you won’t complain about the Trump decision because it has no impact on issues that require actual negotiating.
Of course there will be critics on both sides. In Israel there will be complaints that Trump should have said Israeli sovereignty extends over every inch of today’s Jerusalem borders, now and forever. Arabs will complain that he has destroyed any possible negotiations - as if, in fact, he had said about Jerusalem precisely what some Israelis wish he had said but did not say.
It is true that every such American move, by Bush in 2004 and by Trump now, benefits Israel. It brings the Israeli and American positions closer together. It increases the likelihood that over the next few years more countries will follow the United States in acknowledging Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It shows full American support for Israel’s legitimacy and its rights, including the right to do what every country does and choose its capital.
That is the point.
The refusal to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is part of refusing full and normal legitimacy to the Jewish State. It makes Israel uniquely disadvantaged among nations, giving a sense of impermanence and reduced rights. It says: "They are there now but the future may be different." This is precisely why President Trump’s decision is right and is important: because it says, "They are there now and they will be there forever, and they are there by right and not by our sufferance."
Donald Trump didn’t make Jerusalem the capital of Israel any more than the United Nations made Israel the Jewish State. He simply acknowledged a fact. Truth is the best basis for moving forward toward peace between Israel and its neighbors and between Israel and the world.
Elliott Abrams is a senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., and was Deputy National Security Advisor under President George W. Bush.
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