Op-Ed Columns Opinion

Much Ado About Nothing

By the Ledger Editorial Advisory Board

There is not a single reader of this newspaper who believes Jerusalem is anything other than the capital of the State of Israel. But the United States has formally held a different view, in keeping with a 70-year-old international formulation that the sacred city was supposed to be set apart, belonging to neither of the partitioned Jewish and Arab states created by UN General Assembly Resolution 181.

To be sure, the U.S. position was conveniently ignored in the day-to-day conduct of the two allies. Every time the American ambassador needed to confer with the Israeli government, he would get in a car and drive from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But it made sense to have the embassy in Tel Aviv – the Israelis headquartered their Defense Ministry and intelligence services in the Big Orange. So much of the “special relationship” between the allies was based on military and intelligence cooperation, making Tel Aviv the practical site for an American embassy.

In Jerusalem, the United States maintained a consular presence in Jerusalem since 1857 – first in the Old City and then beyond its walls. Two sites were used – one for the Consul’s residence and one in East Jerusalem for consular services. When Jerusalem was united in 1967, the Jerusalem consulate, which reported directly to the State Department, and not to the embassy in Tel Aviv, became the diplomatic bridge to American citizens and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

But even now, should an American citizen request issuance of a passport from the two Jerusalem consulates, it will not designate a country of issuance. It was a sham arrangement, dictated by diplomatic niceties.

At the height of the Oslo period of Israel-Palestine negotiations, when it looked like a two-state solution might emerge, overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which called for the United States to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and instructed the government to move its embassy there by 1999. President Clinton, who had run on a campaign promise to move the embassy, refused to sign the law, in part because he believed it represented an unconstitutional usurpation of presidential authority in foreign affairs. After it went into effect, he had recourse to its compromise waiver mechanism under which presidents can avoid implementing the embassy move by signing a waiver every six months. Beginning in 1999, and for 35 times thereafter, successive presidents have done so. George W. Bush, who had similarly run on a campaign pledge to move the embassy, and Barack Obama, who hadn’t, each signed their waivers.

A year ago, in a final act of diplomatic pique, the Obama administration abstained from voting on a UN Security Council resolution that declared all Israeli settlement in the occupied territories, including in East Jerusalem, to “have no legal validity” and demanded a halt to all such settlement construction. The Obama administration’s decision to permit the resolution to pass was portentous.

It opened the door for Israel to be brought before the International Criminal Court for violating international law – including for building new neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the so-called Green Line that once separated Israeli from Jordanian territory. And, as we have recently learned, it also led to meddling in the sitting administration’s foreign policy by the transition team of President-elect Trump, in the person of Michael Flynn.

Flynn, Trump’s soon-to-be short-lived National Security Advisor, engaged in a bumbling (and quite possibly illegal) effort to get the Russian government to vote against the resolution in the run-up to the Security Council vote. On Dec. 1, he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russians.

In light of these developments, how should one understand President Trump’s pronouncement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his commitment to build a “beautiful” American embassy there?

It belongs in the same category as his tweeting a transgender ban in the military and his promise to build a beautiful wall against Mexico. It is not the pronouncement of a president in full control of his administration. It is the pronouncement of a carnival barker.

Consider President Trump’s Israel-Palestine brain trust: a Manhattan real estate broker; his personal bankruptcy lawyer; his organization’s former chief legal officer; and a former Goldman Sachs manager who served in the George W. Bush State Department and is fluent in Arabic. Against the manifest lack of progress made by the American foreign policy establishment, these Keystone Diplomats argued for a different approach: align American policy with the reality that Jerusalem IS the capital of Israel, acknowledge that Israel faces a host of real security needs, and move on to the bigger problem of Arab intransigence by courting moderate Sunni elites.

The professional peace processors and pundits wailed. Their failed vision of a two-state solution was already comatose, and yet they uniformly described Trump’s pronouncement as its death blow.

So yes, the recognition of Jerusalem is a welcome dose of reality. But it was carried out in a bumbling, irascible, and chaotic way. And since it was accompanied by yet another six-month presidential waiver, it was both provocatively one-sided and toothless.

The moderate Sunni elites felt betrayed. The Israeli government got a shiny bright object – a Presidential proclamation – in exchange for having to do nothing to advance diplomacy. The Palestinians and Arab rejectionists got their own shiny bright object to rage against for a week. An attention-deficient President made a White House pronouncement, signed another Executive Order, and then turned to other things – complaints of fake news, a White House Chanukah party without a single Democrat on the invitation list, and campaigning for a sex predator.

Within 48 hours of the announcement, the Goldman Sachs manager, described by some as one of those elusive “adults in the room” of the Trump White House, announced her departure from the administration. Just another week of chaos in this most chaotic of presidencies.

CAP: President Trump visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem, May 22, 2017.

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