On the face of it, President Trump’s announcement that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is no big deal, or as he puts it, “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.” He was careful to say nothing about the general understanding that Jerusalem would also serve as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Yet for all its apparent simplicity, this statement has profound implications. To accept that Jews have rights in the issue of Jerusalem destroys the illusion Arabs entertain about Jews.
The Arab and Muslim world believes as an article of faith that Israelis are settlers, colonists, imperialists who are in the land not out of conviction but only because some wicked and powerful persons have put them up to it. Imams in the mosque and supposedly learned men on television unceasingly drum such stuff into the heads of people who have no means of finding out anything other. In reality, Zionism is a typical 19th-century movement of national liberation, one among many that brought all sorts of different peoples into the modern era. In the 20th century, Arabs themselves had successful national-liberation movements with means and ends similar to those of Zionism. In spite of experience, the Arab misrepresentation of Jews as either incapable of founding a state or undeserving of it seems to go too deep into their history and culture ever to be corrected.
A wise course for the Palestinian leadership would have been to put President Trump on the spot by insisting that he clarify what he has in mind for the capital of a Palestinian state. They chose otherwise. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, declared that the United States is “biased” and can no longer be considered an honest broker in negotiations with Israel. Hamas spokesmen in Gaza called for another intifada and promised for the umpteenth time “to open the gates of hell.” This assumes that, once daily life becomes really unpleasant, the settlers will prefer to leave for some other, quieter place.
Every time the Arabs have resorted to opening the gates of hell they have ended in a worse position than before, with less territory and more refugees. To adapt the much-quoted witticism incorrectly attributed to Einstein, Arab leadership has kept doing the same violence to Israel over and over again, invariably losing but always expecting a different result. Between 1937 and 1947, the Arabs could have taken possession of the major part of Palestine; but now, after the sequence of riots and intifadas and wars, only shards of it are left for them. The Israelis are not settlers: They are citizens willing and able to defend their national identity. For reasons that must go deep into the history and culture of the West, Israel is never allowed the benefits of victory, and the Arabs are never obliged to shoulder the costs of opening the gates of hell. Conferences and road maps and peace processes, arranged by parties with interests of their own, maintain a condition of perpetual crisis by obscuring the distinction between reward and punishment. Failure to impose costs for going to war is a standing inducement to have another round of fighting. Hamas proves the point, pretty well daily.
Thanks to President Trump’s decision, for the first time in this dispute the Arabs are having to pay for their misperceptions and policies. From their point of view, there is no knowing how bad the next step might be. Trump’s statement about Jerusalem had another sentence not as simple as it looks: “We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions.” The European Union has long since stuck to the same assumption that all costs should fall on Israel. Intellectually, morally, and politically incoherent, Federica Mogherini, the Italian official in charge of EU foreign policy, holds that the decision on Jerusalem “speaks of our darkest hours” and has a “very worrying potential impact.” The latest accounts show that the EU is the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority. Substantial amounts are siphoned off into terrorism and the construction of palatial villas in Ramallah. At the same moment, Mogherini wishes transactions were “more transparent, more accountable, and more democratic.” President Emmanuel Macron of France is rumored to be considering recognizing Palestine as part of the EU. The ambassadors to the United Nations of Britain, Sweden, France, Germany, and Italy signed a joint statement that Trump’s decision was not in line with Security Council resolutions and was “unhelpful.” Inexplicably, the EU finds the nation-state retrograde for its members but progressive for the Palestinians.
The Palestinian leadership, the imams, and the supposedly learned men on television maintain that Jews cannot have a claim to Jerusalem because there were none there until Zionists were herded in. The indigenous inhabitants were allegedly Canaanites, dating from around 5500 b.c.e., and today’s Palestinians are to be classified as their descendants. Mahmoud Abbas himself said so, the moment he heard the news about Jerusalem. Saeb Erekat has led negotiations with Israel; I have met him several times and know him to be an educated man. His family originally were from a Bedouin tribe in Saudi Arabia, yet he asserts his Canaanite descent, dating it to 1500 b.c.e. — when there were Jews but no Arabs or Islam.
United Nations Resolution 2334 could not make it plainer that Israel does not have, and never did have, legal or historical rights anywhere in Jerusalem, and President Obama refused to veto this considered opinion. U.N. agencies — including UNESCO and the Human Rights Committee — openly manipulate history, wiping the Jewish presence out of it. Never mind the Wailing Wall, the Bible, and the testimony of visitors down the centuries. It so happens that Benjamin Mazar, a professor of Biblical history and an archaeologist originally from Germany, once took me round his excavation of the Jewish foundations under Herod’s Temple. King Hezekiah’s seal dating from the eighth century b.c.e. has recently been found there. The U.N. has given the Temple Mount the name “Al-Buraq Plaza” in honor of the horse that, according to tradition, the Prophet Mohammed mounted there and so ascended to heaven. Rachel’s Tomb, a Jewish monument outside Hebron on the West Bank, has similarly been Islamized as “Bilal bin Rabah.” CNN has put the Dome of the Rock, an architectural gem under Israeli protection, at the top of its list of the most endangered structures in the world; the mosque’s entrance still has the bullet marks left when Palestinian gunmen shot and killed King Abdullah of Jordan. Palmyra, Hatra, and the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul are among historic sites blown up in inter-Arab fighting.
American presidents have frequently intervened in the Middle East. This is different. This president has given an unprecedented lesson in “reality enforcement,” a phrase coined, I believe, by Saul Bellow trying to make sense of what he could see and hear. By and large, Israelis know how to look after themselves, but with a little bit of luck, Trump will have saved some Palestinians from being marched pointlessly towards gunfire.