Opinion

It's the Most Successful Israel Boycott Ever. And It May Yet Yield Results

Netanyahu is said to fear that Trump and adviser Lauder may actually be trying to do exactly what they've been saying. And that they might just get somewhere

If Trump is serious about working for Israeli-Palestinian peace, Netanyahu may be forced into an impossible choice.
ABIR SULTAN/AP

The origin of what may be the worst argument in the history of Israeli public relations is rooted in the most successful boycott of Israel ever.

Launched as a PR trial balloon three years ago at the U.S. Capitol by Ron Dermer, the Israeli envoy to Washington, the argument proclaims that moving America's embassy to Jerusalem – over fierce Palestinian objections – would actually be good for peace.

Resurrected this week in a sudden rift between Dermer's mentor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Trump administration, the claim takes on a particularly Orwellian dimension when viewed against the wider world's response to the minefield issue of Jerusalem.

Every single one of the nearly 90 nations which hold embassies in Israel have located them as far away west of Jerusalem as Highway 1 and the Mediterranean will allow.

Led for decades by Israel's indispensable ally Washington, the international community's refusal to place their embassies in Jerusalem represents what may be seen as the most comprehensive, the longest observed and the most diplomatically influential of all the diverse boycotts ever declared against Israel.

Israel's allies certainly recognize it as a legitimate state. But they refrain from recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital for a number of reasons, some as old as 1948 (the city's status was never agreed upon internationally), some as old as 1967 (Israel's annexation of the city was unilateral, and went unrecognized by the world community), and some as recent as today's headlines (Israeli policies regarding Palestinians). 

The message of the boycott is that even Israel's allies cannot support policies which deny Palestinians the chance for a state of their own alongside Israel, and which deny Palestinians any possibility of having East Jerusalem – or even symbolic sections of it – as the capital of an independent Palestine.

Having grown increasingly resistant to a two-state solution, Netanyahu governments have only bolstered the reluctance of other countries to move their embassies.

The embassy boycott – ironic or deserved, depending on the observer – has effectively left Israel the only country in the world without a capital.

Should U.S. President Donald Trump prove serious in marshaling regional support for a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, that boycott may also eventually prove a key tool to coax the sides to sign an accord.

Trump's recent expressions of commitment to the renewal of such a process have set off warning sirens within Netanyahu's hardline government. Abroad, longtime Netanyahu patron Sheldon Adelson was reportedly "furious" at U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over the delay in moving the embassy.

The importance of the issue, and its potential as leverage in negotiations, was inadvertently demonstrated all too well this week by the last person who wanted to show this to be true – Benjamin Netanyahu.

In recent days, Netanyahu has watched in alarm as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rose in Trump's apparent estimation. Netanyahu knows that if Trump does nothing more than quietly preserve a decades-long status quo over the embassy, Abbas can point to that as a welcome and rare diplomatic victory for the Palestinians as a whole.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu's dependence on caustically critical far-right coalition leaders grows. As it does, the issue of a stalling embassy move has become one of Israeli diplomacy's most sensitive exposed nerves.

And this week, with Trump's visit just days away, that nerve took a direct hit.

On Sunday, backed into a corner over the embassy issue, Netanyahu risked souring Israeli relations with the White House by trotting out the "moving-the-embassy-would-be-good-for-peace" argument in a slap at Tillerson.

Hours earlier, the secretary of state had become the first senior administration official to publicly suggest that moving the embassy was under White House reassessment as a possible "distraction" to a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

This signaled an apparent pullback from Trump's core campaign promise to right-wing Christian and Jewish leaders and voters.

The tone of Netanyahu's response, which mentioned Tillerson by name, was curt.

"Israel's position has been stated many times to the American administration and the world.

"Moving the American embassy to Jerusalem would not harm the peace process. On the contrary, it would advance it by correcting an historical injustice and by shattering the Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel."

Overnight, Netanyahu's effusive praise for all things Trump had taken on the hectoring, condescending chill and nastiness which the prime minister once reserved for former U.S. President Barack Obama.

At the same time, echoing Dermer's 2014 remarks to sympathetic members of U.S. Congress, the prime minister completely avoided addressing the underlying reason for the absence of embassies in Jerusalem, which was broad world support for two states, each with its capital in the holy city.

If Trump is, in fact, serious about working for Israeli-Palestinian peace – and if his presidency survives – Netanyahu may be forced into an impossible choice. If he works with Trump on a peace push, he risks the disintegration of the exceptional support he once enjoyed on the right both in Israel and overseas.

The warnings are already appearing. In Adelson's fiercely pro-Netanyahu, pro-Trump Israel Hayom newspaper last year, columnist Isi Leibler hailed one-time Netanyahu champion Ron Lauder as a "renaissance global Jewish lay leader," calling the president of the World Jewish Congress "a beacon of light in an otherwise sadly depleted Jewish lay leadership."

But that was last year. It has recently emerged that Lauder has played a significant part in encouraging Trump to pursue a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Sunday, Leibler, condemning Lauder's lobbying for diplomacy as "outrageous," said that he'd himself heard Lauder speaking "with an almost messianic fervor about the peace which we could now grasp."

As unlikely as we've all been conditioned to assume, Leibler suggests that Trump and Lauder may actually be trying to do exactly what they have been saying. And that they might just get somewhere.

"When I spoke to the prime minister," Leibler wrote in Israel Hayom on Sunday, "it was clear that Lauder's intervention with Trump angered and distressed him [Netanyahu]. He referred to Lauder as 'my biggest challenge to overcome' because he has immense influence on Trump and is promoting a peace program that had been rejected by Israel but was attractive to an American president possibly easily seduced into believing that a quick peace could be achieved."