President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem provides a timely opportunity for the new president to make a sharp break with President Barack Obama’s unwise, unjustified and ultimately ineffective hostility toward America’s closest ally in the turbulent Middle East.
Especially after Obama’s recent decision to abstain from, rather than veto, U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemned Israeli settlements in absurdly one-sided terms, moving the embassy would send a strong signal to Israel, the region and the world that the United States will once again stand by its allies.
Predictably, critics worry that such a provocative move could have catastrophic effects that include inciting more Palestinian violence, dooming Israeli-Palestinian peace, inflaming the “Arab street” and threatening Israel’s growing private ties to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Arab nations.
Those fears, however, seem overblown. Moreover, the move could shake the long-held assumptions by global and regional actors about how to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace – assumptions that haven’t borne fruit for decades because they’re misguided – and actually improve the chance for peace.
For eight years, an administration that naively viewed Israeli-Palestinian peace as the key to addressing other major regional issues provided an almost textbook example of how not to make it happen. By pressuring Israel to unilaterally freeze settlements, Washington largely ignored the far more central roadblocks to peace on the Palestinian side: broad rejection of Israel’s right to exist, incitement to violence against Jews in schools and mosques, and martyrdom for those who kill Jews.
Such U.S. pressure also prompted the Palestinian Authority to refuse negotiations with Israel without a continuing settlement freeze because, in the eyes of its own people, it couldn’t look any softer on Israel than the American administration was. The more U.S. pressure was exerted on Israel, the more intransigent the Palestinian leadership became.
Resolution 2334, for which Washington reportedly privately lobbied other Security Council nations, will exacerbate the problem by declaring that all land that Israel has occupied since the 1967 war lacks “legal validity” – including Jewish holy sites in East Jerusalem from which Jews were barred for the first two decades of Israel’s existence.
A U.S. embassy move would change those dynamics and might even prompt serious peace talks. After all, no serious person denies that in any peace agreement, Jerusalem will be Israel’s capital or that Israel will absorb major West Bank settlements and compensate Palestinians with equivalent land swaps. Nor would an Israeli capital in West Jerusalem invariably prevent a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.
With a U.S. embassy move making clear that, for the world’s most powerful nation, a safe and secure Israel is here to stay, a Palestinian society that really wants peace will have to shift its focus from the side show of settlements, stop expecting more concessions from Israel or the global community without providing something in return, and address the pervasive rejectionism, incitement and martyrdom that make talk of real peace with Israel a fantasy.
Yes, an embassy move could trigger more Palestinian violence, but Palestinians have hardly needed a reason – real or imagined – to slaughter West Bank settlers, stab Jerusalem shoppers, ram cars into soldiers or find other ways to kill Jews. The mere fact of their Jewishness has provided the justification.
Yes, an embassy move could inflame passions across the Arab world. But whether those passions will demonstrably hurt Israel or somehow destabilize the region may be another matter altogether.
For all the talk of Arab solidarity with the Palestinian cause, Arab governments have proven far more content to exploit the issue for their own political ends than do anything to improve the miserable living conditions of Palestinians in refugee camps or pressure Palestinian leaders to accept reality and make peace with Israel. The “Arab street” clearly hasn’t cared enough to force those governments to change course.
Finally, in response to fears that an embassy move will impede growing Israeli ties with Cairo, Riyadh or Amman or prevent those governments from going public with those ties in the future, here are two thoughts: First, those governments are working more with Israel not out of newfound love for the Jewish state but out of shared interests – e.g., for Saudi Arabia, confronting the common enemy of Iran; for Cairo, fighting jihadists in the Sinai. The need for such private collaboration won’t change whether America moves its embassy or not.
As for the chance that Cairo, Riyadh or Amman might go public with those ties in the future, that’s a long-shot to begin with, and not a reason to halt a landmark political move that could generate the other benefits described above.
Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of the new book Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.