In September 1996, brand-new Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the opening of a second exit, an unassuming aperture on Via Dolorosa in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, for visitors to the subterranean Western Wall tunnels that run alongside the Temple Mount. Whatever had or had not been agreed with the Waqf (Muslim Trust) and other authorities, this relatively minor act of construction in the ultra-sensitive Old City was immediately denounced by PLO leader Yasser Arafat as an assault on Islam. Protests erupted in the territories, and in the subsequent armed clashes 17 Israeli soldiers and 70 Palestinians were killed.
Twenty years later, US President-elect Donald Trump is said by his aides to be making a high priority of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and his intended ambassador David Friedman has declared, in a Trump team statement, that he anticipates working from the Israeli capital.
The current Palestinian leadership is already warning of dire consequences if Trump follows through on his campaign pledge to relocate the embassy to what he called “the eternal capital of the Jewish people.” In a conference call this week, chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat said the PLO would revoke its recognition of Israel, the peace process would be over, and there would be turmoil in the region. Furthermore, he predicted, America would be forced to close its embassies throughout the Arab world, since the Arab citizenries would not tolerate their ongoing presence.
Put it another way, the violence prompted by the opening of the Western Wall tunnel exit would look like a stroll in the park by comparison.
Netanyahu, today the longest-serving Israeli prime minister bar David Ben-Gurion, affects to be unfazed. It may be that Netanyahu doesn’t think often these days of what happened in September 1996; or maybe he thinks about it frequently and reminds himself that the violence died down in the end and that the second entrance to the Western Wall Tunnels is still open.
Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s ambassador to the United States and very close adviser, on Tuesday, hailed the anticipated opening of the American Embassy in Jerusalem as a “great step forward” for peace and a “strong message against delegitimization of Israel.” Netanyahu, who earlier this week hosted the entire Times of Israel editorial staff for an unprecedented, lengthy, but strictly off-the-record briefing packed with insights into his thinking, has thus far publicly confined himself, when discussing the embassy move, to an enthusiastic “great.”
Such enthusiasm is self-evident. Jerusalem is the reason the Jewish state is here. It’s our historic capital. It is central to our faith. And much as UNESCO and other skewed international forums might seek to revise history, much as an intensifying Palestinian narrative seeks to disconnect us, Jerusalem has nestled in the heart of our nationhood for 3,000 years.
Having regained sovereignty in the west of the city with independence, and recaptured the Old City and the east in the Six Day War, Israel has always sought to have the international community recognize Jerusalem as its capital. The United States, like most nations, has not done so. Until 1980, there were 13 countries that maintained their embassies in the city, but subsequently Israelis watched with sorrow the departing stream to Tel Aviv — Costa Rica and El Salvador being the last to go in 2006. Now Trump is apparently bent on reversing that diplomatic boycott. How could the prime minister of Israel, and his people for that matter, do anything but exult?
Netanyahu plainly sees in Trump’s intended embassy move an extraordinary act of friendship and support for Israel, along with the clearest of signals to the Palestinians and the Arab world that change has emphatically arrived in Washington. A fervent believer that Israel must both be strong and project strength in order to survive in this treacherous region, the last thing Netanyahu is instinctively inclined to do is suggest to Trump that he reconsider his intended act of presidential Zionism because of doomsday threats from the likes of Saeb Erekat.
There are, however, many ways for a US president to move an embassy. You can, as the head of Republicans Overseas in Israel, Marc Zell, suggested last week, simply change the plaque on the current US consulate. Or you can spend years building an entirely new structure. You can announce the move as an in-your-face rejection of all non-Israeli sovereign claims throughout the city. Or you can highlight the fact that the location is in pre-1967, ostensibly non-disputed Israeli West Jerusalem, and assert that its opening prejudges nothing in the disputed East. You can calibrate the announcement as the intended culmination of the peace negotiations you intend to convene. Taking a leaf out of a French diplomatic book, you can make plain that you seek to broker an accommodation, but that, come what may in those talks, you’ll be moving your embassy to Jerusalem on a specific date.
And a whole host of other ideas besides.
Along with his promise to relocate the embassy, Trump, that supreme artist of the deal, emphasized in recent months that he’d love to seal that “toughest” deal of all, the one that resolves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and promised he’d “give it a shot.” It could be argued that utterly alienating one of the two sides by preempting negotiations with a step that could doom the effort is not the smartest course for a peace-broker to take. Others would doubtless counter that making plain to the other side that the rules of the game have changed, and it better wise up fast, is the best possible opening gambit.
As with so much about the imminent Trump presidency, we watch, we wait, we wonder. And we also hope — we lovers of Jerusalem, we who live in Jerusalem, we whose daily lives play out against the backdrop of Jerusalem’s uniquely resonant and incendiary sensitivities — for wisdom from our leaders.