Politics & Policy

Who’s Playing Politics on Israel?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (File photo: Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Liberals accused Trump of putting politics above diplomacy when he recognized Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital. Pot, meet kettle.

As far as the New York Times was concerned, it was simply a matter of fact: The only possible explanation for President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was politics, pure and simple. A front-page news article proclaimed as much in its headline: “For Trump, an Embassy in Jerusalem Is a Political Decision, Not a Diplomatic One.”

The piece claimed that the move was more or less hatched in a meeting Trump held ten days before his inauguration with billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson and Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein. At the meeting, Trump reaffirmed the promise he had made during the campaign to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Since all of his predecessors had reneged on the same promise, as far as the Times was concerned, the only possible reason for Trump to even consider keeping it was a fear of disappointing donors like Adelson and fervently pro-Israel base voters.

This thesis makes sense if you believe no rational president would ignore the collective wisdom of the foreign-policy establishment, but it has two basic problems. One is that it fundamentally misunderstands Trump’s view of the world and governing style, as well as the truth about the current standoff in the Middle East peace process. The second is that it ignores an even more obvious element of the new debate over Jerusalem: The president’s opponents are playing politics here as much as he is.

Was there a political benefit to Trump’s keeping his promise on Jerusalem? Of course. But while Trump seems to think more about the need to honor his campaign promises than most career politicians, everything he’s done since entering politics suggests that being broadly popular is not his primary concern.

Instead, it seems far more likely that the decision stemmed from Trump’s contempt for the conventions of policymaking. His instincts almost always lead him to distrust the experts and actively seek out the advice of dissenters from the conventional wisdom. This can often get him in trouble, but in this case, it alerted him to a basic fact that his predecessors’ deference to the experts caused them to ignore: The traditional approach to the Arab–Israeli conflict, which dictated a refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, has been an abysmal failure.

Trump may know no more about Middle East policy than he knows about most other issues. But his instinctual resistance to playing by existing rules has led him to the realization that the policies of his predecessors failed to foster peace and encouraged the Palestinians to believe that no one will ever hold them accountable for their intransigence and support of terrorism. Unlike every previous president, he has grasped, even if by accident, that the necessary predicate for peace must be Palestinians’ acceptance of Israel’s permanence and legitimacy as well as an end to their financing of terror.

That, more than Adelson’s money or the support of Evangelical voters, is what was at the heart of Trump’s decision to make a statement on Jerusalem. And try as they might, many Democratic critics who argued otherwise, claiming that the president was playing politics, couldn’t hide their own nakedly political motives.

For all of the huffing and puffing about the decision, Trump’s finely calibrated statement in no way compromised the theoretical possibility of a two-state solution, including one that might lead to the re-partition of Jerusalem. It didn’t even order the moving of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv. It merely recognized that at least western Jerusalem — the part of the city that was under Israeli control from 1949 to 1967, prior to Jerusalem’s unification during the Six-Day War — was part of Israel and its capital.

Most Democratic opposition was rooted in politics, plain and simple.

Palestinian resistance to this measure was rooted in a continuing refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn or how much of Jerusalem it contains. But most Democratic opposition was rooted in politics, plain and simple.

One particularly egregious example was Senator Dianne Feinstein, who issued a stern condemnation of Trump’s statement in which she compared his action to Israeli moves that she claimed set off the second Palestinian intifada in 2000. But just six months ago, Feinstein voted in favor of a resolution that called for moving the embassy to Jerusalem. She was also one of the many original co-sponsors of the 1995 law that mandated the moving of the embassy, which has been put off only by a series of presidential waivers in the decades since.

The same is true for the attacks on Trump from many other Democrats, who have, in other contexts, called for the U.S. to do as much as if not more than the president has now done on Jerusalem. The notion that their opposition stems solely from a desire to foster peace would be more credible if they were prepared to acknowledge that the status quo actually encourages Palestinian violence rather than advancing hopes for a resolution to the conflict.

That also applied to criticism from some liberal Jewish groups such as the Union of Reform Judaism, which expressed deep “concern” about the Trump statement. Reform, like the other liberal denominations, requires rabbinical students to study for a year in Jerusalem. But apparently their devotion to the “resistance” is such that a U.S. recognition of the city as Israel’s capital — a recognition the group itself has made in the past — was unwelcome coming from Trump.

The plain fact is most liberals would have cheered had any Democrat made the same sort of careful statement keeping the path to peace open while erasing a discriminatory policy that treats Israel as the only nation in the world whose capital isn’t recognized by the U.S. But at a time when partisanship is at a fever pitch in the U.S., Trump can’t help but generate knee-jerk opposition even to a move on which the overwhelming majority of Democrats and Republicans would otherwise agree.

The merits of Trump’s move may be debated, and if the thus far limited demonstrations and violence ginned up by Palestinian and Islamist radicals grow, there will be grounds to question the wisdom of the decision. But in the meantime, it’s important to remember that the howls of the president’s opponents are every bit as politically motivated as his own actions.


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