Analysis

President Trump, Don’t Do Us Any Favors on Jerusalem

With Trump set to change U.S. policy, many American Jews will be torn between their support for Jerusalem and their fear and loathing of Trump

U.S. President Donald Trump at the Oval Office in Washington, D.C. on December 5, 2017.
SAUL LOEB/AFP

A U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and/or to move its embassy there would be a stellar diplomatic achievement for Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It would shatter the international consensus that has been in force since 1949, according to which governments of the world have refused to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital until a comprehensive Middle East peace deal is reached.

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Although the exact details of Trump’s expected Wednesday announcement of the move remain murky, the decision entrenches the Israeli hold on the capital and decreases chances that it would ever be divided.

The question is at what price, because the move could scuttle any chances of a possible peace process in the near future. It might unleash a backlash that could hurt long-term American and Israeli interests in the Middle East. It hands a valuable propaganda victory to Iran, providing it with a cause to whip up Muslim masses. It could lead to an outbreak of violence that will destabilize the Palestinian Authority, which has invested what little prestige it had in fostering ties with the Trump Administration. And, of course, it could cost potentially cost lives. Lots of lives.

Presumably, Trump hasn’t heard about “The Rock of our Existence.” This was the term used by Netanyahu to justify his unilateral 1996 decision to open up the Western Wall Tunnels, a move that led to an outbreak of riots in which 17 Israeli soldiers and close to a hundred Palestinians were killed. The incident taught Netanyahu a lesson he would never forget, or at least one he hasn’t forgotten until now: Don’t mess with Jerusalem.

Read more: Why the world doesn’t recognize it as Israel’s capital ■ How Jerusalem went from hosting 16 embassies to zero ■ Let Trump recognize Jerusalem already | Opinion ■ Trump is bringing bloodshed, not peace, to Jerusalem | Opinion

Such an abrupt change in U.S. foreign policy, especially one that many Israelis have found to be particularly vexing, is bound to be seen by the Israeli public, especially on the right, as a feather in Netanyahu’s cap, no small benefit for a prime minister who is plummeting in the polls and up to his neck in legal troubles.

Unlike the pragmatic Labor movement that built Israel piece by piece, Netanyahu's Likud in particular and the right in general are enamored with speeches, declarations and symbolic gestures. They are good at talking, less at doing.

But public opinion is fickle: It will only remain supportive for as long as the price being paid seems reasonable. If violence breaks out and lives are lost, Trump’s move and Netanyahu’s efforts to facilitate it could backfire. There is a limit to how many human lives can be deemed a justified sacrifice for what is, ultimately, a move that at best, would change very little.

Reactions to the move will be somewhat more complicated for American Jews. On the one hand, the American Jewish community has made Jerusalem a top priority for decades, even more so than Israelis themselves, placing support for “the eternal and undivided capital of Jerusalem” on their community pedestal. This is the reason why U.S. presidential candidates have traditionally promised to move the embassy even before the advent of the Evangelical movement. But unlike Trump, his predecessors had the good sense to differentiate between campaign rhetoric and common sense.

But American Jews largely detest Trump for a host of reasons, and they will be hard pressed to give him the credit they might have given other presidents in similar circumstances. Most of Trump’s statements and policies are abhorrent to the large majority of American Jews, which means that they will soon be suffering from acute cognitive dissonance, as they try to square their support for Jerusalem with their disdain for the president who has recognized it as Israel’s capital.

Other than the Orthodox, most American Jews lack the messianic instinct that enables them to turn a blind eye to his flaws.

Much of the world has been pressing Trump to refrain from inflammatory actions such as changing the status quo in Jerusalem, given the move’s potentially disastrous ramifications.

Trump’s newfound friends in the Middle East - especially Jordan and Saudi Arabia, who view themselves as stakeholders in the future of Jerusalem by virtue of their theoretical custodianship of the holy places – have warned Trump of the possible fallout. If he has decided to ignore the alarms and push ahead anyway, it is for two main reasons.

The first is sustained pressure exerted on Trump by loyal evangelicals, who will now cite the bible and elevate Trump to the status of the Lord’s instrument to justify their continued support for a president whose behavior is decidedly unchristian. Jewish benefactors such as Sheldon Adelson and others are likely to have prodded Trump as well.

The second reason that Trump is ignoring the warning signs and pushing full speed ahead is that, unlike most other politicians, he does not respond well to rational, thought-out objections. Trump detests being told by others what he can or cannot do. He delights in challenging the politically correct and, in this case, the diplomatically correct, a trait that has already ruptured American ties with several leading U.S. allies. Simply put, Trump is upsetting the apple cart because he can.

The optimistic scenario is that after sporadic outbreaks of violence over the next few days, things will calm down, allowing both Trump and Netanyahu to emerge triumphant with large “I told you so” smiles on their faces. The pessimistic scenario is that a Jerusalem move would tap into a groundswell of Palestinian anger and frustration that would then lead to more widespread protests and clashes, thus endangering lives on both sides.

And if the law of unintended circumstances is applied to the fullest, such violence could very well undermine the last vestiges of Mahmoud Abbas’ prestige, placing the Palestinian Authority in a precarious if not fatal position. This on the assumption that the rioting won’t spread to Arab capitals and won’t be used by radicals to sabotage the existing regimes by portraying them as Zionist collaborators.

Almost all Israelis view Jerusalem as their rightful capital. In a perfect world, all of us would welcome Trump’s decision, whatever its final details may be.

But if the price is loss of human lives, destruction of the peace process, a propaganda victory for Tehran and a Middle East radicalization that could threaten so-called moderate regimes, a responsible Jewish response would be encapsulated in the Yiddish saying “moykhel toives.” Dear President Trump, the message should go, don’t do us any favors.