Israeli leftists should back President-elect Trump’s pledge to relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
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Why? For two key reasons: first, because it is justified, and not just in terms of finally implementing the 1995 congressional decision to do so, but, secondly, because it is a tactical error to create even the appearance that the Israeli left cares less about Jerusalem than other Jews do.
At a time when our extreme right-wing government is anticipating that the Trump administration will green light its expansionist plans in the West Bank, we cannot afford to be perceived as being more understanding of the feelings of our Palestinian neighbors, or more sympathetic to the views of our enemies, than to our own deep emotional, cultural and historical attachments to Jerusalem.
The debate over Jerusalem has to evolve to reflect today’s reality. No one in Israel imagines Jerusalem will not continue to be the capital of our country or the seat of our government, or that Israel would ever turn over control of Jerusalem to an international agency.
Supporting the relocation of the American embassy would enhance the left’s legitimacy in Israeli eyes to fight the far more reprehensible aspirations that Israel’s government and Ambassador-designate David Friedman appear to share; annexing some of the Occupied Territories, sustaining the Occupation indefinitely, or advancing the nightmare scenario U.S. Secretary State John Kerry outlined last week: a binational state of almost equal numbers of Jews and Palestinians, the latter doomed to settle permanently for unequal rights.
But supporting the move is not just a question of building tactical leverage; there is justice to the move, too. It is one of the quirks of the ongoing appeasement of Arab countries and the Islamic world that the United States and all other nations have kept their embassies in Tel Aviv. Long after the Arab oil boycott was relocated to the dustbin of history, this historical oddity remains because of the anticipated apocalyptic response; the peace process would be derailed, permanently, or the Islamic world would rise up in revolt.
But today, there is no peace process and the Arab world is divided and preoccupied with ISIS, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Iran, ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah would doubtless use the embassy move for propaganda purposes, but they are hardly in short supply of anti-American or anti-Israeli rhetoric. Jordan and the so-called "moderate Sunni states," Saudi Arabia and Egypt, would require careful diplomacy, but the Palestinians won’t forsake their national aspirations because of the location of the American embassy.
I am not saying the local and international fears of a violent response to an embassy move are unjustified - but that those violent reactions would themselves be unjustified and should not be legitimated. We have seen Jews and Palestinians pay in blood for the hot button hysteria around “threats to Jerusalem/Al-Quds” deployed periodically to whip up anger against Israel. But why should the Israeli left be more concerned about security or about provoking a negative Palestinian reaction than the Israeli right, or the American government?
Because feelings about Jerusalem are so intense, it is crucially important how the move is made, and what it is meant to convey. It would have been better if the embassy had been relocated by an American administration more judicious than the Trump team seems likely to be. They might have ameliorated Arab opposition while harvesting Israeli public good will.
But if the next American administration believes it can manage the security concerns potentially triggered by relocating its embassy, and even if it really just wants a showy demonstration of how it is different than previous administrations, we on Israel’s left should celebrate this recognition of our capital, rather than obstruct it. Israel, of course, would still be responsible for our security concerns, and our leaders would have to determine if the risk is worth the gain, including the potential impact on regional ties with Arab countries.
The status of Jerusalem and the occupation of the rest of the West Bank occupy separate compartments in Israeli Jewish consciousness, but as UN Security Council Resolution 2334 showed, this is not the case in the international community. The endorsement signaled by an American embassy move might help separate these two issues and shake something loose for Israelis and Palestinians, and give us the confidence to address the status of Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents, and to share this divided city.
And if, as seems likely, U.S. ambassador-designate David Friedman endorses Israeli nationalist claims for exclusive Jewish control of an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital, that won’t change the reality that Jerusalem is divided, that there is a Jewish Jerusalem and an Arab Jerusalem. An embassy move does not preclude – or guarantee – Palestinian aspirations for Jerusalem to serve as their own capital when their theoretical state becomes a functioning state, but that determination will be made through negotiations. And as for whether Jerusalem will be our "eternal capital" - well, we won’t be around long enough to judge.
I have fears of course about the Trump administration and the potential loss of life if reactions turn violent. But the over-cautiousness of the Obama Administration – it’s not-so-tough love of Israel, the Kerry-led peace process, and its unwillingness to take on Netanyahu until its dying days – only entrenched the Occupation and encouraged delusional thinking on both sides.
The settler camp has chosen to divide the Jewish People rather than abandon their territorial fantasies. We, the Jewish left, which has always seen the State of Israel and the unity of the Jewish People as more important than Judea and Samaria, must boldly assert our own patriotic commitment to the uniqueness of Jerusalem in our people’s history and to our country.
In the Trump-Netanyahu era, we will have to choose our battles carefully. We should embrace the call for the American government and other countries to place their embassies in our capital, Jerusalem, while fighting a pitched battle to end the occupation.
Don Futterman is the Program Director for Israel for the Moriah Fund, a private American Foundation, which works to strengthen democracy and civil society in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @DonFutterman