Conventional wisdom has it that President Trump's statement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel undermined the United States' credibility as a neutral dealmaker and dealt a serious blow to prospects for peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
The conventional wisdom on the subject is wrong.
For one thing nothing could strike a serious blow to a "peace process" that has been dead ever since Yasir Arafat rejected the President Clinton's offer of a Palestinian state at Camp David, without so much as a counter-proposal, nearly two decades ago. Camp David was followed by sixteen years, under both President George W. Bush and President Obama, in which face-to-face negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel were sporadic almost to the point of non-existent.
The fundamental reason that Arafat ran away from Camp David and that the peace process was not revived under his successor is that the Palestinians have still not reconciled themselves to the existence of Israel, and certainly not to their being a flimsy and puny state next to a powerful Israel. Arafat never prepared his people for peace, and was simply afraid to proceed. He told President Clinton that acceptance of a state would leave him a dead man walking. Mahmoud Abbas, a far less popular figure than Arafat, absorbed the lesson.
Mahmoud Habash, the senior cleric in the Palestinian Authority, declared last week that Jerusalem "can never be under the sovereignty of non-Muslims." On previous occasions, he has said the same about all of Israel: "The struggle over this land is not merely a struggle over a piece of land here or there. Not at all. . . . It is a struggle between whom A-lah has chosen as custodians for Ribat and those who are trying to mutilate the Land of Ribat." Ribat, Daniel Greenfield explains, refers to the frontier between lands under Islamic control and those not yet under Islamic control. And thus the battle with Israel is not just one between Muslims and Jews, but one over the frontier in a larger war was "between Islam and the rest of the world."
The Palestinian strategy from the first has been based on the belief that time is on their side, even if the wait is a long one. On his first visit to the White House, early in the Obama presidency, Abbas stunned the members of the Washington Post editorial board, when he told them that he had no intention of engaging in direct negotiations with Israel, but would rely on American pressure instead.
And indeed the high point of the Palestinian strategy came at the end of the Obama presidency, when the United States prepared and then abstained on a Security Council Resolution that declared "any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem" to have "no legal validity and [to constitute] a flagrant violation under international law."
Thus did the U.N. Security Council, which had never once seen fit to condemn Jordan for desecration of Jewish holy sites, including Jewish graves on Har Hazeisim turned into latrines, over the course of 19 years of illegal Jordanian occupation, declare the rebuilding of the Kotel Plaza and Jewish possession of the Old City to be grave international crimes. Three hundred thousand Jewish residents of post-1967 neighborhoods of Jerusalem discovered that they were in the eyes of the president of the United States indistinguishable from residents of the farthest flung hilltop of Judaea and Samaria.
If U.N. SECURITY COUNCIL RESOLUTION 2334 was the high point of the Palestinian do-nothing strategy, it was a short-lived victory. In fact, it was just one further example of the failure of the international community to provide the Palestinians with any reality testing. Instead they have been led to believe that the existence of the Jewish state is still at issue.
UNESCO resolutions denying any connection between the land of Israel and the Jewish people are the most glaring example. But the fiction preserved by the international community for fifty years that Israel is some kind of sui generis quasi-state has proven more harmful. Every nation in the U.N. has determined its own capital and had that capital universally recognized, with the sole exception of Israel. No wonder the Palestinians have concluded Israel is not really a state and may one day disappear.
As former Labor MK Einat Wilf noted, the only explanation of the Palestinian objection to President Trump's declaration that Jerusalem is Israel's capital must be an objection to Israel's existence per se, since nothing he said sought to determine the geographical contours of Jerusalem or excluded a Palestinian capital in part of the city.
THE PALESTINIAN ASSUMPTION that time is on their side, however, has not served them well. Indeed time is passing them by. The oil rich Sunni states have never cared particularly for the Palestinians, to whom they never granted citizenship and whom they have frequently evicted. But at least they shared the Palestinians grievance with a Jewish presence on formerly Arab land, and professed their commitment to the Palestinian cause.
Yet even the New York Times acknowledged last week: "While Arab leaders have continued to pay lip service to the Palestinian cause, it has slipped in importance. . . . Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, more concerned about their rivalry with Iran, have found their interests increasingly overlapping with those of Israel."
Israel's diplomatic isolation is everywhere in retreat. It enjoys warm diplomatic relations and robust trade with the world's major economic powers – China, Japan, India, and the United States. (Economic relations with the EU are robust as well, even as the Europeans continue to toe the Palestinian political line.) Prime Minister Netanyahu is a feted visitor to Africa, where Israeli solar energy and irrigation know-how offer life-saving potable water and energy to millions.
WHAT THE PALESTINIANS require if they are ever to get to work on creating the institutions of a viable civil society, as the Jews did in the decades leading up to 1948, is an injection of realism and an end to the irredentist dream of a world from which Israel has disappeared.
Facing the world as it is would prove humiliating in light of the fantasies that the Palestinians have long harbored. But humiliation, like the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan in World War II, is the necessary condition for Palestinian society to begin to refashion itself in terms of the requirements of a self-governing state. As Daniel Pipes has frequently noted, undeniable defeat in the pursuit of some glorious cause is the pre-condition for the abandonment of that cause and the refashioning of society. The complete defeat of Germany and Japan paved the way for them to become modern democracies.
President George W. Bush's April 14 2004 letter to then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was one such dose of reality for the Palestinians. Bush wrote of new realities on the ground since 1967, which made it inconceivable that Israel would withdraw from major settlement blocs (into which category the post-1967 neighborhoods of Jerusalem would certainly have fallen.) Unfortunately the impact of that letter was vitiated as soon as President Obama came into office. He and Secretary of State Clinton reiterated numerous times that the letter did not bind his administration – though it was the result of lengthy negotiations and came in exchange for some major concessions by Israel.
President Trump's forthright statement on Jerusalem was another dose of reality for the Palestinians: "[N]othing more or less than a recognition of reality," in his words. The end of decades of global pretense that only served to make peace less likely.
Whatever his many flaws, one thing of which Donald Trump cannot be accused is being the prisoner of conventional elite wisdom. He returns in full measure the elite contempt for him. And as, Walter Russell Mead, a member in good standing of the Council of Foreign Relations and no Trump booster, has written recently, the president's combination of ignorance and disregard for conventional wisdom can be sometimes give him a clarity the experts lack. According to Mead, he has recognized, for instance, what the foreign-policy experts have not: "America's post-Cold War strategy has run out of gas."
Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital is another case where Trump got it right in defiance of the expert consensus.