January 12, 2017 § 4 Comments
The location of the American Embassy in Israel has been an issue of controversy for decades, but it is newly on the front burner. Moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was a persistent Donald Trump campaign promise, one of its strongest advocates is ambassador-nominee David Friedman, and Israeli officials called on Trump to relocate the embassy in their messages of congratulations on his election. Like so many other variables in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this one boils down to whether you feel more strongly about principles or feel more strongly about outcomes. Unlike other areas of contention between Israel and the Palestinians, this is one where the smart solution is one against which I instinctively recoil.
The historical reason for the embassy being located in Tel Aviv is because the international community views the overall status of Jerusalem as being subject to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This is not an issue in which the U.S. is an outlier in any way – while there were a small number of primarily Latin American countries that located their embassies in Jerusalem in the past, there have been no embassies in Jerusalem for over a decade. Aside from the American position that the status of Jerusalem should not be pre-judged, there is a daily and ongoing practical reason as well for having the embassy in Tel Aviv. American regional allies are adamant that locating the embassy in Jerusalem would be a literally explosive issue, and indeed Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have on national security grounds waived the requirement in the Jerusalem Embassy Act that the embassy be moved to Jerusalem. It is taken as an article of faith that moving the embassy will create protests not only in Israel but against American embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East and subject American diplomats and soldiers to the threat of violence.
The argument for moving the embassy to Jerusalem relies on a basic notion of fairness. Israel defines its capital as Jerusalem, and yet it is the only country in the world whose capital – determined by its own democratically elected and sovereign government – is not accepted by the rest of the international community. Despite the fact that Jerusalem does indeed represent a complex problem whose ultimate settlement must be resolved through negotiations, this is a red herring. Israel’s capital is in West Jerusalem, the newer section of the city that was built by Jewish residents of Palestine and that was part of Israel from the very beginning. Its status is not and never has been disputed, was not and is not subject to any past or future negotiations, and is not the part of the city that is viewed by some as being more appropriately internationalized. Many Israelis and American Jews view the refusal to locate the American embassy in West Jerusalem as an unfair double standard, and believe the Palestinian and larger Arab red line over moving the embassy to be evidence that the issue is acceptance of Israel in any borders rather than a stand against Israel’s presence in the West Bank.
Many people and organizations on both sides of this issue feel very strongly about it, as evidenced by the flood of statements and commentary on it since Trump’s election. Similar to the debate over the president using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” it is an example of the divide over whether powerful symbolism should take precedence over more easily measurable consequences, and as with that debate, there are legitimate arguments for both. Irrespective of where one falls out, I wish that those on opposite sides of this divide would recognize that it is not a cut and dry debate.
To keep the embassy where it is does not constitute a purely neutral move. Israelis rightly feel that it signals an unwillingness to accept Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Jewish people, the return to which was the object of centuries of Jewish longing. An American embassy in West Jerusalem does not prejudice the status of the Old City or negate the eminently reasonable desire of Palestinians to have their future capital in East Jerusalem. Keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv grants a hecklers’ veto to those whose real problem is with any Israeli presence in Jerusalem and who aim to deny the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. As with the Temple Mount status quo, having the world’s diplomatic corps to Israel live and work in Tel Aviv is a very painful concession, even if it is one that is ultimately wise for security purposes.
To move the embassy is an ideological move completely devoid of any practical considerations. It doesn’t mean that it is ultimately the wrong policy to adopt, but it is highly misleading to pretend that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is the clear “pro-Israel” move and that keeping it in Tel Aviv is a sign of less than full support for Israel. Moving the embassy will not necessarily result in chaos and riots in Jerusalem itself, but there is no question that it will result in chaos and riots somewhere, whether in other spots in Israel, the West Bank, Muslim-majority countries, or at American and Israeli embassies around the world. Is making a completely symbolic statement of moving the embassy worth even one American, Israeli, or Palestinian life? Is it worth even one dollar of property damage? Is it worth the PLO following through on its threat to withdraw its recognition of Israel, or halt the security cooperation that is preventing mass terrorism and rockets from the West Bank? The idea that the American embassy can be moved in a cost-free manner is laughable.
The embassy issue is hard. Do not use it as a litmus test for what is right or wrong, what is supportive of Israel or not, what should be done or should not be done. Above all, do not turn it into such a sacred cow that keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv will automatically result in a 50% cut to American embassy security worldwide, as the absolutely insane bill introduced in the Senate last week will do. Policies have consequences, and moving the American embassy or keeping it where it is involves a lot more than whether diplomats will have to order new business cards. We are entering an era where every policy is in danger of being reduced to a mere rhetorical argument; do not give into that temptation with regard to this one.
February 25, 2016 § 5 Comments
When Labor leader Buji Herzog rolled out his unilateral disengagement plan a couple of weeks ago – a plan that I think can be a positive step if it incorporates a number of critical components – he made a comment during a Knesset debate that rankled people and drew condemnations for appealing to racist logic. The comment was that if separation from the Palestinians does not happen soon, Jerusalem risks having an Arab mayor, with the obvious implication that this would be a bad thing that should be prevented. So at the risk of plunging into treacherous waters on this topic, is it wrong to want the mayor of Israel’s capital to be Jewish?
A simple answer might be yes. While discrimination and intolerance exist in Israeli politics and society – as they do in the politics and society of every country on Earth – Israel’s testament to being a democracy is that it has full political rights for all of its citizens. As there are Arab members of Knesset, Arab judges on the High Court of Justice, and Arab officers in the military, there is no reason why there cannot or should not be an Arab mayor of Jerusalem. To warn against such an eventuality is to transform Israel from being a Jewish state into a state only for Jews. It is easy to see why people took offense at what Herzog said.
But in this instance, this particular simple answer is insufficient. Let’s begin with some context. The idea of separation is not only Herzog’s main selling point but the animating idea behind the withdrawal plan itself, since it views separating from the Palestinians as soon as possible as so crucial that it throws out the Oslo framework with which the Labor Party is so strongly associated. The premise behind this is twofold, one that deals with the here and now and one that deals with the bigger picture. The here and now is the current security breakdown where violence has returned to Israel’s streets, and so Herzog is repeating an idea that has been largely associated with the right, which is to retreat behind a wall. The bigger picture is the more interesting one though, because it deals with the central principle of Zionism, which is the establishment of a Jewish state, and whether Zionism is a legitimate political movement.
When Herzog warned against the looming danger of an Arab mayor of Jerusalem, I don’t think this was a dogwhistle meant to appeal to anti-Arab sentiment. I get why some may think so, given the plain language involved and coming against the backdrop of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s infamous and abhorrent election night exhortation to rightwing voters to come to the polls and counter the Arab voters “coming out in droves.” I certainly cannot say definitively that Herzog wasn’t drawing from the same ugly well. But my reading of his comment in the larger context is that separation from the Palestinians is needed to secure the Zionist dream, and his invoking of Jerusalem was a clumsy shortcut to making that point. Zionism is nothing more and nothing less than an expression of Jewish nationalism, and the dream of Jewish nationalism necessarily involves Jewish officials exercising sovereignty in a Jewish state. Does it mean that only Jews are allowed into the political arena? Nope. But it’s not outrageous to express a wish that the mayor of the Jewish state’s capital city be Jewish, particularly given that Jews were barred from the Holy Basin when it was under Jordanian control between 1948 and 1967.
The entire premise behind the two-state solution is to preserve Jewish nationalist aspirations, which are at risk in a binational state when that state is no longer majority Jewish. I will not condemn anyone who suggests that Jewish leadership of a Jewish state is a desired goal, since to do otherwise is to flirt with the idea that Zionism is racism. Nobody will blink in the future at the suggestion that the mayor of East Jerusalem – presumably the capital of an independent Palestine – be Palestinian, and that will be neither a racist nor an unreasonable expectation. Herzog was expressing the flip side of that sentiment in the present, albeit in an awkward manner given that Jerusalem is not currently divided between two states. I don’t read it as an attempt to disenfranchise Jerusalem’s Arab residents – and I’d note that the fact that Herzog brings up the possibility is evidence that he isn’t trying to do so – but as an inarticulate way of expressing that without separation, the Zionist goal of a Jewish state is in danger. I for one would have no problem with an Arab mayor of Jerusalem, but there is little question that Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem is an integral part of Zionism and powerful imagery to evoke.
What Herzog said was largely deemed to be an ordinary statement in Israel because it resonated with many Israeli Jews as a simple explication of Zionist aspirations. This is not because Israeli Jews are racists seeking to keep their fellow Arab citizens down, and it is not because the state would ever prevent an elected Arab mayor of Jerusalem from taking office. It is because they rightly and justifiably view Zionism as just as legitimate as any other form of nationalism, and Jerusalem represents the very heart of Jewish nationalist aspirations. It is no coincidence that Herzog didn’t warn about an Arab mayor of Haifa or Ashdod. I do not begrudge anyone who calls out Herzog for his comment, but it is simply not the same as Netanyahu raising the alarm about the looming peril of Arab votes. It involves a larger question of whether one sees Zionism as inherently racist or as a legitimate nationalist movement of a long-oppressed people.
November 16, 2012 § 3 Comments
There are all sorts of reports and firsthand accounts over Twitter that Hamas has started shooting rockets at Jerusalem and Hamas itself has claimed that it shot a rocket toward the Knesset. It doesn’t appear that any rockets have hit Jerusalem proper, and it sounds as if they fell instead on Gush Etzion, which is a large settlement bloc south of Jerusalem. Where the rockets have landed is not as important as where they were intended to go though, and shooting at Jerusalem is a big, big deal for a couple of reasons.
First, the limited historical experience that Israelis have with this sort of thing is that Jerusalem is generally not targeted. During the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein shot 42 Scuds at Israel and 39 of them landed, and they were all aimed at Tel Aviv and Haifa, but not at Jerusalem. During the 2006 war with Hizballah, Jerusalem was not targeted despite the rumored presence of long-range rockets in Hizballah’s arsenal. When Iran has made threats to attack Israel, Tel Aviv has been mentioned but not Jerusalem. The oft-stated Palestinian desire to liberate Jerusalem is a reference to pushing Israel out rather than destroying the city. Targeting Tel Aviv is not a surprise to Israelis, but sending large scale ordinance in the direction of Jerusalem is very much out of the ordinary.
Second, leaving aside the historical experience, there has been a presumption that Jerusalem would be left alone because of the makeup of its population and what the city contains. There is a large Palestinian population in East Jerusalem of over 200,000 people, and shooting notoriously unreliable and inaccurate rockets at Jerusalem is taking a huge chance of killing large numbers of Jerusalem’s Arab residents. While Hamas sent suicide bombers to Jerusalem with alarming frequency in the past, blowing up a bus or cafe in West Jerusalem meant killing large numbers of Jews. Sending rockets is a crap shoot, and while Jews are the obvious target, there is by no means a guarantee that Hamas will actually hit where they are aiming. In addition, Jerusalem is a patchwork mosaic of sites holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, whereas Tel Aviv and Haifa are not. Just imagine what would happen if a Hamas rocket hit the Old City and did any damage at all to the Temple Mount; the consequences of that are literally unimaginable.
Targeting Jerusalem is an enormous escalation and very risky, much more so than rockets toward Tel Aviv. Rocketing Tel Aviv to my mind guaranteed an eventual Israeli ground invasion, but attempting to bombard Jerusalem just exacerbates the situation to an exponential degree. Blake Hounshell tweeted earlier that Hamas firing at Jerusalem is the equivalent of scoring on your own goal, and I think that analogy is an apt one. It says to me that Hamas is getting desperate, and I think this move is going to backfire in a big way, both in terms of creating a more ferocious Israeli response and costing Hamas important points in the court of public opinion. Hamas is now acting in ways that could cause large numbers of Palestinian casualties and damage to Muslim holy sites, and I think that there will be consequences for this strategy.
April 23, 2012 § 3 Comments
60 Minutes ran a segment last night on Christians in the Holy Land that examined their dwindling numbers in cities like Bethlehem and Jerusalem and how this relates to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. A report like this is bound to draw controversy and this one did not disappoint, with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren taking lots of heat due to the disclosure during the segment that he called the president of CBS News and tried to have the story killed. Before I dive in, a disclaimer: Ambassador Oren was one of my professors at Harvard and is a friend, and I spent many fond hours chatting with him about all sorts of topics in his office at Georgetown (he arrived one year after I did) before he was appointed ambassador. Since then, I have seen or spoken with him only two or three times, and I continue to hold him in the highest regard.
Given the above facts, I am certainly not the world’s most objective commentator on Michael Oren. But I fail to see why heads are exploding over the fact that the Israeli ambassador is trying to protect his country’s image. Did he come off as tongue-tied when Bob Simon ambushed him on camera with a question that was purely about process rather than substance? Sure. Let’s remember though that THIS IS HIS JOB. He is not paid to be an objective analyst. He is not paid to project a balanced and nuanced view of events in the Middle East. He is paid to be Israel’s spokesman in the United States and to advance Israeli interests, and if he gets wind of the fact that a network is planning on airing a story that is unfairly critical of Israel (more on this below) on its flagship news magazine program, it would be diplomatic malpractice for him not to try and keep the story off the air. Does anyone reading this actually believe that diplomats from every country on the planet do not do the same thing? Is this legitimately more surprising than the stories that emerged just last week about the Pentagon and the State Department trying to suppress reports and leaked photos of American troops in Afghanistan posing for pictures with Taliban corpses? This is what governments do, folks. Michael Oren is a high ranking official of the Israeli government and his first and only priority is to protect his country and its image, and if he comes off looking poorly in the course of doing so, it’s because that comes with the territory. Please spare me the feigned outrage, particularly when Bob Simon claims that this is the first time he has encountered a reaction to a story before it has been broadcast, which was far and away the most outrageous statement of the night.
Moving to the substance of the story, the gist of the 60 Minutes report was that the Christian population in the West Bank is shrinking and that Palestinian Christians are leaving in large numbers, and that this can be blamed on Israel. It is difficult to assess the size of this reported exodus or how rapidly it is taking place since Bob Simon provided little in the way of hard numbers. The implication is that this is a direct result of the Israeli occupation, and while this may very well be true, there was nothing but purely anecdotal evidence provided to support the charge. Simon interviewed the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem who said that in 1964 there were 30,000 Christians in Jerusalem and now there are “very few” with Simon putting the number at 11,000. Damning stuff, until you find out that according to Menashe Harrel (whose numbers are widely considered authoritative) there were 25,000 Christians in Jerusalem in 1948 and only 12,646 in 1967, which leads one to conclude that the Jordanians must have been secret Israelis given the dastardly effect their control of Jerusalem had on the Christian population. With Jerusalem’s Christian population now standing at 11,000, it is impossible to claim with a straight face that Israel is responsible for a rapid mass migration by Christians elsewhere.
In addition, there is the inconvenient fact that while the Christian population is shrinking, the Muslim population is growing. Are we supposed to take away from this that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank disproportionately affects, or even purposely targets, Christians? If Israel’s actions are the direct and proximate cause of Christian flight, then it would have been helpful to see some sort of causal chain established by 60 Minutes, but instead the viewers are told that Christians residents are disappearing and that this is due to occupation of the West Bank, yet no effort is made to ascertain why Christians are leaving (aside from Ari Shavit’s observation about Christians being squeezed between political Islam and political Judaism) but Muslims are not. Christian communities are disappearing across the region, have been driven out of Iraq entirely and are coming under sectarian pressure in Egypt, yet 60 Minutes finds Zahi Khouri’s claim that he has never heard of someone leaving because of concern over Islamic fundamentalism to be a completely credible one. Bob Simon asked Shavit, “Do you think the Israeli government ever thinks of the fact that if Christians aren’t being treated well here, and America is an overwhelmingly Christian country, that this could have consequences?” yet there was no documentation at all of ways in which Christians are being specifically mistreated for being Christian, just an allegation hanging in the air as if the question itself were somehow proof.
The bottom line is that this was a sloppily reported and lazily researched segment falling far below 60 Minutes’ usual standards. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I carry no water for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or mistreatment of Palestinians, and would be thrilled to see both of those things ended immediately. I call out what I view to be Israeli missteps and bad behavior all the time. But Michael Oren was correct to view this piece as a hatchet job that was undeserving of being aired. Yes, Israel has made life very unpleasant for plenty of Palestinians, and Christians in Bethlehem are particularly ill-served by the occupation and the separation barrier given their proximity to Israel proper and their reliance on religious tourism, but there was simply no proof presented by CBS outside of empty conjecture that Israel is deserving of more blame for this than are the Palestinian terrorists that prompted the construction of the barrier in the first place, nor was there even a scintilla of historical or regional context to place this story in perspective. Being a Christian in the West Bank cannot be easy for a variety of reasons, and I can understand why Palestinian Christians would feel uncomfortable under both Jewish and Muslim rule, particularly when they each rely on an increasingly assertive religious nationalism. It should be perfectly clear though that Israel is not targeting Christian Palestinians, that the Christian population of Jerusalem has remained steady since Israel claimed the entirety of the city in 1967, and that the Christian population of the West Bank is shrinking for a variety of reasons, some of which have to do with the occupation and some of which have nothing to do with it whatsoever. The public perception following the 60 Minutes report is that Michael Oren did not come off well, but 60 Minutes and Bob Simon did not exactly cover themselves in glory (the segment has been in the works since last year and this is the best they could come up with??) and deserve any criticism that might come their way.