Capital punishment
Hebrew media review

Capital punishment

Pretty much everyone in Israel agrees that Jerusalem is the rightful capital, but many see the varied costs of US recognition outweighing any benefit

Palestinian protesters burn pictures of US President Donald Trump at Bethlehem's Manger Square on December 5, 2017. (AFP Photo/Musa Al Shaer)
Palestinian protesters burn pictures of US President Donald Trump at Bethlehem's Manger Square on December 5, 2017. (AFP Photo/Musa Al Shaer)

There are two immediate and telling takeaways one can get just from glancing at Israel’s main newspapers Wednesday morning, hours before US President Donald Trump is set to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in a move seen by some as a miracle 3,000 years in the making and by others as a historic mistake.

The first is the fact that both the Yedioth Ahronoth and Israel Hayom tabloids have nearly identical front pages, with pictures of Trump at the Western Wall, and a bottom strip mostly taken up with a long horizontal picture of the army’s first cohort of female tank crew members.

Even though the headlines lean in different directions (“Girding for Trump,” in centrist/populist Yedioth, and “Eyes upturned toward Jerusalem,” in right-wing Israel Hayom), they both focus on the possibility of violence in the wake of the announcement and other opposition to the move.

The takeaway is that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has mainstream consensus support in Israel across a wide swath of society, even if the rest of the world thinks it’s wrong. And if you push Israel into a corner over it, they will sic their armored Amazonians at you.

The second is that despite the fact that all three papers were published before an official White House background briefing in which the administration made its plans for Wednesday’s speech known, all three papers have almost all the details, since they were all leaked out ahead of the official leak.

The takeaway from that is the simple idea that the White House is still showing signs of disarray and struggling to control its messaging. And going off the record for no reason often just leaves everyone looking silly.

Just like the fact that everybody knows what’s in the speech before the speech is delivered, it seems that everybody also knows what will happen in reaction to the speech, with most of the coverage in all three papers focusing on not only the historic moment, but also the harsh backlash that’s expected, for both the US and Israel.

“The declaration and the warning,” reads a headline in Yedioth, reporting in its lead on 11th-hour efforts by everyone and their mother to get Trump to change his mind.

“This decision will inflame the situation and the ground. We are going back to square one. This could start an intifada,” the paper quotes a Palestinian security source as saying.

Israel Hayom takes a much more gung ho view of the situation, using words like “historic” and “dramatic” to describe the announcement, in a good way. And though the paper reports on fears of violence, it plays up the fact that the army is staying mum on any possible girding it’s doing in the face of the threats.

Haaretz’s headline deals with the calls Trump made to Arab leaders, though it confusingly attributes the recognition of the capital to readouts of those calls, when in actuality the statements from the Arab leaders dealt with Trump informing them that he was going to move the embassy and it was US officials who leaked the fact that he was going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital (though one could say tomato, tohmato, since moving the embassy likely involves recognition). The paper doesn’t have any trouble getting confused with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s account of his call with Trump, because there is none.

“Netanyahu’s bureau was keeping a low profile and ordered ministers not to make public statements on the embassy issue, at the White House’s request,” the paper reports.

While cabinet ministers are squirming and trying to keep in all their opinions, pundits do the opposite in Wednesday’s editions, letting loose with an avalanche of words and making predictions like only they know how ahead of the coming announcement.

In Israel Hayom, Chaim Shine disregards all the nattering naysayers who think the move will somehow make peace talks harder, hot-taking his way to the conclusion that it will actually bring peace closer.

“Trump’s firm stance on Jerusalem, given the geopolitical changes taking place in the region, could convince the Palestinians that it is better to talk to Israel for their own good. Attempts to promote peace by applying unfair pressure on Israel have failed. Now is the time to try a different path. Peace is not at hand, but Trump’s decision creates an opening for peace,” he writes.

That opinion is not shared by the pundits in the other two papers, with a general feeling coming through that even if the move is the right one, it’s likely not worth blowing up the peace process over it, while subjecting Israelis to renewed terror and any other punishments that might be in store.

“For Israelis, recognition of Jerusalem won’t change a thing. Either way, Israelis consider it the capital of the country, even without recognition by the United States,” Zvi Bar’el writes in Haaretz. “But if I were a right-winger, I would plead with Trump to leave Jerusalem alone, because the price tag that might be attached to recognition isn’t worth it. If he’s a true friend of Israel, let him remain in the traditional American position of an onlooker and not make waves. That’s the position the right likes in every US president, so he won’t make us pay the necessary compensation for this bribery called recognition of Jerusalem.”

Similarly, Chemi Shalev in the same paper advises notes that “in a perfect world, all of us would welcome Trump’s decision, whatever its final details may be.”

“But if the price is loss of human lives, destruction of the peace process, a propaganda victory for Tehran and a Middle East radicalization that could threaten so-called moderate regimes, a responsible Jewish response would be encapsulated in the Yiddish saying ‘moykhel toives.’ Dear President Trump, the message should go, don’t do us any favors,” he adds.

In Yedioth, Alex Fishman writes with the tired resignation of someone who needs another bout of violence like a hole in the head, but notes that the Groundhog Day-esque cycles of violence might actually help Israel in this case.

“The Temple Mount metal detector riots in July revealed to security forces who the driving forces were behind the unrest in Jerusalem, which will again be the center of the violence,” he writes.

If writing that repeated rounds of unrest can be a good thing is unpopular, Yoav Fromer in Yedioth one-ups him by being the rare voice inside Israel saying that there is no reason for the US to recognize Jerusalem or move the embassy there at all.

“In the parlance of political theater, the Jerusalem Embassy Act is a symbolic measure, hollow and superficial, which is not meant to change the situation on the ground. And that’s what it seems Trump is planning to do anyway now: Instead of delivering his ‘historic deal’ between Israel and the Palestinians, as he promised to do, it seems he’s given up the hard work of peace talks in favor of empty statements,” Fromer writes.

“One cannot forget that the law has been pushed off for 22 years for a reason — because it is terrible for the US, and also Israel. Trump’s predecessors — and some Israeli leaders — opposed the embassy moving because they understood the heavy price: Not only that the US will give up its standing as a fair broker in the conflict, which will only hurt Israel, but also that the president will waste what little support he has left in Arab capitals, enrage the Arab street and distract from the real threat — Iranian expansionism.”

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