(Note: In the following, I refer to Israel as if it were an undifferentiated block of granite. It is not. Not all Israelis agree with Israel’s hard-line Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. And not all Israelis are Jewish. About 1.5 million (ca. 20% of the total population) are Arabs (Palestinians), the majority, Muslims, but with a significant Christian and Druze minority. Their political views are at least as varied as those of Israel’s Jewish majority.)
For decades, America has refused to officially acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and has consequently kept its embassy in Tel Aviv.
The Trump administration’s decision to reverse that position is not necessarily wrong simply because it breaks with tradition. Tradition can be good or bad. It’s wrong because it makes a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more difficult.
(And, incidentally, it ruins what was once a pretty good joke: Israeli: Why does America not move its embassy to Jerusalem? American: Because the road is uphill all the way and it’s much too heavy to push.)
If you look at the balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians, discounting the weight of allies on either side, Israel has a decided advantage: a powerful military; a strong economy; a fortress mentality.
The Palestinians have no military to speak of, though they can narrow the gap slightly with asymmetrical warfare, aka terrorism; their economy is weak and highly dependent on Israel; the only parity is their determination to have a homeland.
External factors skew the balance of power even more in Israel’s favor. America’s security guarantee to Israel, and its active security assistance, has long outweighed what the Arab and broader Muslim world could offer the Palestinians. Now, with the Middle East in turmoil, and the likelihood it will get worse, Israel’s enemies, who were once willing to go to war for the Palestinians, have much more pressing issues to deal with.
Under these circumstances, Israel has less reason than ever to negotiate a political settlement, which demands at least reasonable parity between the parties. Trump has given Israel all the more reason to say no.
(I respectfully disagree with commentary that suggests strengthening Israel’s hand, as Trump has done, would facilitate negotiations by allowing it to make concessions toward the Palestinians. That is not a negotiating position. It offers, at best, kinder, gentler terms of surrender.)
It has never been certain that a two-state solution is the answer. Among other issues, protecting the coastal center of Israel’s population from the nearby heights of a sovereign West Bank would be very difficult. Still, no one has come up with a better solution.
Trump may view his decision as assuring Israel’s security. It may be that Israel can go on for a decade or two or more shaking an iron fist, but the long term is not promising: a volatile Middle East could turn on Israel in any of a score of ways; the Palestinians will not go away and they will not forget — they have before them a perfect example of the power of memory, the eternal call of a sacred land, and the willingness to fight and die for it; and, perhaps most telling of all, they have reproductive power in a population race that an aging Israeli citizenry cannot match.
Trump may think he’s doing right by Israel. I think he’s dead wrong.