Opinion |

U.S. Liberal Jews Read It Wrong. Trump's Call on Jerusalem Was Good for the Peace Camp

The pro-peace, pro-negotiations, two-state camp consensus in Israel welcomed Trump's Jerusalem move. That shows it was no sell-out to Netanyahu and the Israeli right-wing - and that Palestinian rejectionists can't wish historical realities away

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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U.S. President Donald Trump signs a proclamation declaring Jerusalem as Israel's capitol as Vice President Mike Pence looks on. White House, Washington, D.C. Dec. 6, 2017
U.S. President Donald Trump signs a proclamation declaring Jerusalem as Israel's capitol as Vice President Mike Pence looks on. White House, Washington, D.C. Dec. 6, 2017Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

President Trump’s statement on Jerusalem was good for the peace camp.

The center and mainstream left in Israel understood this, while pro-Israel liberals and leftists in America did not.

This was not my initial reaction. As a peace advocate and a strong supporter of a two-state solution, I responded to Trump’s pronouncement on Israel’s capital the same way that I respond to virtually everything that the President says: negatively and dismissively. 

Palestinian children hold models of the Dome of the Rock during a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Gaza Strip, December 15, 2017Credit: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

And the reason for this is that the President’s foreign policy statements have been inconsistent and muddled at best and isolationist and xenophobic at worst. Not surprisingly, my default position is to resist every word on foreign affairs that comes out of his mouth. 

And this position was strengthened by the arguments of Tom Friedman and a host of other journalists, commentators, academics, and Middle East experts whose opinions I respect and who asserted that Trump had given away the store. 

Why, they asked, should the President of the United States give Israel’s right-wing government something it so desperately wants without getting anything in return? Why should he take steps that will likely lead to despair and anti-American violence throughout the Arab world?  Why should he fail to take note of Palestinian concerns about their potential capital?   

And not only that. If Bibi Netanyahu, Israel’s right-wing and corrupt prime minister, is exhilarated by the president’s stand, isn’t that a good reason for me to react to Trump with a substantial measure of skepticism and doubt? 

And I did. At the beginning, at least. After all, those of us in the two-state camp are a beleaguered bunch, and when so many in my camp opposed Trump, I found it hard not to join in.

But it didn’t last, for three reasons. 

Palestinian protester holds a banner during a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, in Gaza City, Friday, Dec. 15, 2017Credit: AP Photo/Adel Hana

In the first place, I responded viscerally. I am a Jerusalem Jew. In my 75 or so visits to Israel, about 60% of my time has been spent in Jerusalem. I enjoy the hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv, and I love the stark majesty of the Negev. But still, warts and all, Jerusalem remains for me a city of unsurpassed beauty and palpable holiness. And I believe that Judaism and Jewish life will not be sustained without Jerusalem at its core.

Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel, whether the President of the United States says so or not. Nonetheless, it is comforting and gratifying when President Trump finally states what I know to be eternal and true. 

And not only that. When Palestinians express their outrage and demand justice for Jerusalem, I can’t help wondering: Where was justice when Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas were claiming at the UN that Jews have no historical connection to the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, and indeed to all of Jerusalem? 

Last Thursday in Istanbul, Abbas repeated this ugly and absurd claim at a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Having insisted that Jerusalem’s holy sites belong only to Muslims and Christians, how much sympathy do they have a right to expect now?

A Palestinian protestor uses a slingshot during clashes with Israeli forces near an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 16, 2017 Credit: FP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI

In the second place, I saw that not only Netanyahu and the right supported President Trump’s statement. So did the leaders of the Israeli center and center-left. Knesset opposition leader Isaac Herzog, Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid, Zionist Union chair Avi Gabbay, and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni all applauded the President’s words. 

When I am looking for guidance from Israel’s political leaders, these are the people to whom I turn. They are all critics of Benjamin Netanyahu and the rightwing government now in power. They are all advocates of a Jewish and democratic Israel and a two-state solution. They all call for immediate negotiations with the Palestinians.

And the unanimity of their sentiments demonstrates that proclaiming Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is not a surrender to Netanyahu and the right. It is a reflection of a broad consensus in Israel that certain historical realities need to be recognized and that Palestinian rejectionists are not entitled to wish these realities away. 

In the third place, I read President Trump’s speech a second time and then a third time. And while it is difficult for me to say this, say it I must: It was a pretty good speech. Not wholly adequate to be sure, but nonetheless moderate, reasonable, and generally fair. And far better than I had feared and expected.

Those who saw it as a give-away to settlers and rightwing fanatics should look again. Netanyahu and the Israeli right call for a united Jerusalem; for the city to be the capital of the Jewish state, and the Jewish state alone; and for sovereignty of the city to be solely in Jewish hands. Yet Trump clearly rejected all of these positions, asserting instead that these matters are to be determined by negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.

To be sure, the U.S. president made clear that any peace deal would result in Israel maintaining its capital in at least part of Jerusalem. But he said nothing to preclude negotiations that would result in a Palestinian state that would also have its capital in some part of the city.

A protester holds a sign during a rally to condemn U.S. President Donald Trumps's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, Jakarta, Indonesia, December 17, 2017Credit: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

And this too: The president is not moving the American embassy to Jerusalem at this time, or at any specified time in the future. It will happen at some future date, as yet undetermined. Had Trump moved the embassy immediately, as he could have, any chance of negotiations in the near future might have been snuffed out. But he chose not to do so, leaving open the door to talks that both sides now seem unwilling to enter.

In short, this was no sell-out to the Israeli right. Israel got recognition of Jerusalem as its capital from the United States of America. The Palestinians heard from the American President that he does not accept the united-city, single-sovereignty model for Jerusalem that Netanyahu advocates; these matters are to be determined jointly, through negotiations.

Does this make President Trump a hero? Hardly. The big question, for all parties, is whether or not he has a strategy for what happens now. At the moment, it is not the least bit clear that he does. While he talks constantly about "the ultimate deal," there is little to indicate that he has a serious plan to get the two sides there.

Still, fair is fair. He has taken a generally responsible approach to Jerusalem, and for this I give him the credit that he is due.   

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie

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