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Many speculate that the president will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – a move that would likely please part of the 35-38 percent of Americans who support the President no matter what.
Such a move would hold strong political appeal for many evangelical Christians and no doubt win plaudits from right-wing members of Congress and Republican mega-donors like Sheldon Adelson. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli settler movement too would be thrilled.
It would not, however, be particularly popular with American voters as a whole. A new poll by the University of Maryland found that 63 percent of Americans, including 44 percent of Republicans oppose moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The majority of American Jews – and of Americans as a whole – realize that international recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel will only come through an agreement with the Palestinians and Arab states based on a two-state formula. Under such an agreement, parts of Jerusalem would be designated as the capital of Israel and of a future Palestine state with each side exercising sovereignty over those areas of the city where their citizens reside.
Whatever the President says, of course, also won’t change the deep love for and connection to Jerusalem that Jews all over the world feel. Those emotions are built into our DNA through prayers, history and tradition.
But the mythology of Jerusalem can’t change the reality of Jerusalem today – a city already shared by the two peoples who each claim it as their capital.
In practical terms, it is self-evident that parts of Jerusalem already serve as Israel’s capital. Most of the government is there: ministries, the Knesset, the Supreme Court and the Central Bank.
It is equally self-evident, however, that many neighborhoods of Jerusalem are Palestinian. In fact, the city is home to nearly 300,000 Palestinians, many living in abject poverty and in neglected and overcrowded neighborhoods. Most Palestinian neighborhoods in the city lack sufficient infrastructure, equal funding and fair opportunities for social and economic development.
Even Israel itself – despite the rhetoric of an eternal, undivided capital - doesn’t regard the Jerusalem municipality as indivisible. In fact, just as the President’s people pen a paean to an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Israel’s parliament is poised to vote to excise from the city several Palestinian neighborhoods and tens of thousands of municipal residents.
Truly settling the status of Jerusalem demands less posturing and overblown rhetoric and more efforts to reach a two-state solution through negotiation.
Therein lies one of the ironies of Wednesday’s speech. The president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been working for months to engage Israel and the Palestinians in meaningful negotiations to resolve the conflict.
Yet this speech could sink Kushner’s initiative. This past weekend, Kushner said that advancing fundamental U.S. interests in the Middle East depends on getting a Palestinian-Israeli deal. The president is apparently willing to wreck that for the sake of pandering to his political base.
The consequences could be grave. There could be violence in Jerusalem, the occupied territories or even in the wider Arab and Muslim world. A change in America’s position on Jerusalem could destabilize Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and/or the Jordanian monarchy. It will certainly provide Iran and its allies with a wonderful rallying cry and could even breathe new life into terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaida. It will further distance the United States from its European allies.
American Jews play an important role in this debate. Jerusalem became a political football as politicians sought to win our support by demonstrating unquestioned support for Jewish claims to the city during the early Oslo years.
Today, responsible American Jewish leaders understand that Israel’s long-run future as a democratic home for the Jewish people depends on separating into two states – and further realize that those states will each need a capital in Jerusalem.
Now is the time to create a new political climate around this issue – one that puts resolving the conflict and not political pandering at the center of American policy making.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is president and founder of J Street, the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement. Twitter: @JeremyBenAmi