Author of the upcoming book, Mensch•Marks: Life lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times. Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2018 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Random musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
I can sum up last week’s Jerusalem announcement in six words: Right decision. Questionable timing. Wrong decider.
The 1947 partition plan, which Israel not only accepted, but incorporated into its Declaration of Independence, designated Jerusalem as an international city. So it was understandable that, when Israel declared its independence half a year later, in May of 1948, that no country, including the US, would have recognized Jerusalem as the capital. It wasn’t yet part of Israel.
Later on, things got much more complicated, and once it was clear that Jerusalem would be Israel’s capital, America had a number of opportunities to recognize it as Israel’s capital while still maintaining “honest broker” status in peace negotiations.
Bret Stephens laid out a solid case for the soundness of the decision in an op-ed last weekend. I have no argument with his points. Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. Every world leader has gone there. Sadat visited the Knesset. Popes and presidents have visited government offices there. As Shmuel Rosner put it last week, “Jerusalem is Israel’s Capital? Duh.”
But the timing is questionable.
I wish the US had done this years ago, as part of the diplomatic initiatives it has undertaken over the years. When the US sold AWACS to the Saudis, this carrot would have been very welcome, and given the imbalance of that deal, the Saudis would have had a hard time complaining. During the bus bombings of the early 2000s, this carrot would have been embraced by a beleaguered Israeli populace and would have sent a clear message to Palestinians that terrorism has consequences. George W Bush’s 2004 letter to Prime Minister Sharon, which enshrined the idea that Israel would not be expected to yield the main settlement blocs in any final peace negotiations, was in fact a much more radical step than simply saying that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. The US also could have done it during the Clinton era negotiations, as a stick to keep the Palestinians at the table. They could have done it when Rabin was murdered or at other times when Israel really needed support from its closest friend. In short there were many chances to do it where it could have had a positive impact on what Bush 43 called “The Roadmap” in that 2004 letter.
So why now?
Yes, there are signs that the Sunni world, led by Saudi Arabia, has fatigued of the Palestinian — Israel conflict and could be realigning alongside Israel against Iran. There are signs that Palestinians are weakened and have lost faith in their leaders, and yes, to this point, the response has not been as violent as many had feared. But that can change in a millisecond — and the Times of Israel’s Avi Issacharoff suggests that in Gaza things are heating up for real. Enough rockets have been shot toward Israel over the past few days to indicate that it’s more than a random attempt to let off steam. Had Hamas succeeded in kidnapping Israeli soldiers, a plan thwarted this week on the West Bank, we would already be in the midst of a dangerous spiral leading almost certainly to war. Meanwhile, Jewish teens in a Swedish synagogue were firebombed this week, and the New York subways were too (fortunately, poorly), with the perpetrators referencing the Jerusalem decision. There is no excuse for terror, nor should such threats keep us from making bold, calculated risks for peace. But there is also no doubting that the short-term impact of Trump’s gambit was to make the world a more dangerous place.
All of this downside and there is no upside. There is no “road map” anymore – no one even uses road maps anymore. Everyone has moved on to their own version of Waze. If Trump’s announcement had been part of a comprehensive, coordinated diplomatic strategy, we would have seen Israel and the US respond instantly in a manner that would have capitalized on the moment to reduce tensions and not increase them.
Since there have been no follow up announcements by either the US or Israeli government designed reduce tensions, we can only assume that the timing of this decision was not diplomatic at all — assuming that the State Department has any diplomats left, much less a real diplomatic strategy.
That leaves us with some combination of three possibilities: 1) it was impulsive, 2) it was diversionary and 3) it was purely political, designed to appeal to US evangelicals and, most specifically, the huge number of evangelical voters in Alabama, 80 percent of whom voted for Roy Moore this week. In other words, the only reason I can think of why this decision was announced last Wed., just two days before President Trump was to go all-in for Moore at a rally in Florida, and just a week before a special election, was to rile up evangelical voters who see Jewish control of Jerusalem as part of their end time aspirations.
And for that, people have died and many more could still, and the prospects for a two-state solution have only gotten dimmer.
Let’s play that back. The fate of the most sensitive square mile on earth was tossed around like a football simply to win a few more votes for Roy Moore on Tuesday.
And how’d that work out for ya?
Which brings us to the third part of my statement.
Let me put it this way. If a someone were to stand on Mulholland Drive and flick a match into the tinderbox hills surrounding Los Angeles, and that person’s identity became known, what would happen to that person? How many years would s/he spend in jail for acting so irresponsibly?
Jerusalem is arguably the most combustible diplomatic tinderbox ever known to humankind. President Trump tossed a match into it. It gave many Israelis and other Jews a terrific sugar high but little else, nor was Israel even asked to give something in return, as Thomas Friedman wrote. It was the art of no-deal.
A year ago, right after Election Night, I promised my congregants that I would remain vigilant but also give the benefit of the doubt, and I prayed for the new president’s success. Sadly, many of my fears have been borne out, which poses a dilemma for someone, like me, who wishes both to be vigilant and charitable. Right now, vigilance must trump all else. I respect those who choose the celebrate the decision to recognize Jerusalem; I am simply unable to separate the decision from the decider.
I found the accolades by Jewish groups, including my own Conservative Jewish leadership, to be perilously short sighted. Yes, supporting a just decision that should have been made decades ago is an easy choice, an “apple pie” issue. But given the extreme nature of the dangers we face right now, I believe those groups that have fallen in line are mistaken. It gives me no pleasure to say this. For them, it’s more about the decision. For me, it’s all about the decider, the dangers our democracy is facing, and how I will not allow myself to be an enabler.
Had this decision been made by any other president at any time, I’d have been cheering as well. If Chester Arthur had recognized the Jewish right to Jerusalem, I’d have been down with it (Arthur was actually pretty good to the Jews).
I will never forget thee, O Jerusalem… but neither will I become complicit to someone that could lead Jerusalem – and the world – down a very dangerous path.