Trump's Dodge on Jerusalem Might Be Smarter Policy Than It Seemed

Trump evaded Republican Jewish questioning on the status of Jerusalem by saying he would wait until he 'meets with Bibi.' Soon we'll find out if his is a more honest position than his predecessors.'

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed that the US government register Muslims.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed that the US government register Muslims. Credit: Reuters
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

Could it be that Donald Trump’s dodge of the Jerusalem question was a smart move? The Donald ducked the question at a December 3 meeting with the Republican Jewish Coalition. The RJC’s executive director, Matthew Brooks, asked Trump whether he could “at least try to pin you down on Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel — is that a position you support?” Trump replied that he wanted to wait “until I meet with Bibi.”

This was met with boos. Not a lot but some. It also prompted the Zionist Organization of America, which for years has been out front on the Jerusalem question, to rush out a statement of concern and to urge the Republican front-runner to announce “promptly” for an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. I share ZOA’s concern. Then again, it’s also possible that Trump’s handling of the question signals a turn toward a harder line in the Battle of Jerusalem.

For I’ve long been in favor of a kind of inversion in America’s strategy on Jerusalem. Our position has long been to reserve Jerusalem for so-called final status negotiations. The logic — if that’s what it is — is that Jerusalem is the toughest issue. Precisely for that reason, though, one could argue that Jerusalem ought to be the starting point of any parley. Why schlepp all the way through the easy stuff only to come to a deal breaker at the end?

This is all the more logically the case if Israel wants to stand — as the Congress of the United States wants to stand — for an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of a Jewish state. With every year of peace-processing, this issue has grown cloudier. Obfuscation started in the 1990s, after the Congress, by an almost unanimous vote, passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which included a “statement of policy of the United States” as being a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The law also required that America’s embassy be moved to Jerusalem, but that hasn’t happened. As hopes began to fade on the question, at least one of the authors of the act was averring that the reason was that Israel didn’t want to press the point. The cloudiness grew more opaque when Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu for premier in 1999 on, among other promises, a vow not to divide Jerusalem and then promptly entered talks on just such a point.

In 2000, the ZOA’s president, Morton Klein, met with the governor of Texas, George W. Bush, then running for president, at the Newark, New Jersey, airport Sheraton and asked him about moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Bush told Klein that he couldn’t do that because it would “screw up the peace process.” Within days, Bush’s aides said Klein misunderstood. Bush then announced that he would begin moving the embassy on the first day of his administration.

In the event, he defaulted on that promise, via the same loophole in the Jerusalem Embassy Act — a waiver authority concocted by the Democrats — that both President Clinton and President Obama have also used. There’s no reason to doubt that Trump understands the Jerusalem question. He’s nothing if not a New Yorker. He’s been Grand Marshall of the Israel Day Parade. His daughter converted to Judaism under the tutelage of one the great Zionists in the city, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein.

I’d like to think that when Trump told the RJC that he wanted to wait until he talked with Netanyahu, he was speaking as one who does not want, in contradistinction to the others, to end up talking out of both sides of his mouth. It’s not that Israel would set policy in a Trump administration. But the idea would be that if one is going to try to protect Israel’s possession of Jerusalem by deed, rather than by merely rhetoric, it would be useful for the president and premier to be working from the same temporal tractate.

Trump’s meeting with Netanyahu is set for this month. It would be nice to be a fly on the wall. At the RJC, Trump made — and makes generally — much of his businessman’s approach. On the one hand, I’m not a big fan of businessmen-politicians (the last “businessman” we had as president, Herbert Hoover, precipitated us into the Great Depression). On the other hand, the political professionals don’t have a lot to show for the peace process. So it’s intriguing to imagine what might be done by the author of the “Art of the Deal.”

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