Analysis from Israel

Note: After this article was published, Paraguay also moved its embassy to Jerusalem

After President Donald Trump announced in December that he was moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, a friend lamented that the move would have less impact than it should because Trump was so widely disdained both in America and overseas. Yet since then, I’ve heard more foreign acknowledgments of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital than I can ever remember before.

So far, only one other country is definitely moving its embassy—Guatemala, whose Jerusalem embassy is slated to open two days after America’s does. But at least four other countries—two in Latin America and two in Europe—are actively discussing an embassy move. And even if none actually happens, the very fact that this issue is now openly being debated in regions of the globe where Israel has faced considerable hostility in recent years is a remarkable change.

In both the European Union and most of Latin America, official policy has long been that eastern Jerusalem should be the capital of Palestine, while western Jerusalem should be . . . well, nothing. Few countries in either region have ever said that any part of Jerusalem should be Israel’s capital; in fact, some still explicitly declare the city a corpus separatum. In other words, they think Palestinians should get the eastern half while the western half should be an international city.

But now, a decades-old taboo has been broken. Suddenly, several other countries are where America was 20 years ago, with different branches of government actively arguing over Jerusalem’s status.

On April 12, the Honduras National Congress voted to move its embassy to Jerusalem by a sizable majority (59-33), though the decision hasn’t yet been approved by the executive branch. Later that month, Paraguay’s president said he’d like to move his country’s embassy before leaving office in mid-August, though buy-in from the rest of the political system is uncertain.

On April 19, Israeli Independence Day, Romania broke an even more significant psychological barrier by becoming the first European country to announce plans to move its embassy. The president of Romania’s Chamber of Deputies told a Romanian television station that the decision had been made the previous evening. Whether it will actually happen remains unclear; the country’s president opposes the move, and the cabinet hasn’t yet approved it. But the prime minister has formally asked the cabinet to do so.

And in the Czech Republic—whose parliament passed a resolution urging its government to promote “respect” for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by a vote of 112-2 seven months before Trump’s announcement—the Foreign Ministry broke with E.U. policy by declaring, the day after Trump’s announcement, that it recognizes “West Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital. President Milos Zeman wants to move the embassy as well, but Prime Minister Andrej Babi refuses to defy E.U. policy to that extent.

There has also been a notable change in the conversation even in countries where an embassy move isn’t on the table.

In March, for instance, Belgian Secretary of State Philippe de Backer (whose position is equivalent to a deputy cabinet minister) told the local Jewish paper Joods Actueel: “There is no doubt that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. It’s clear; it’s reality. There’s no discussion on this issue.”

Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls—who, admittedly, was the most pro-Israel member of former President François Hollande’s otherwise hostile government—made similar statements that same month in an interview with the Times of Israel. “I am very clear on this subject: Jerusalem is the capital of the Jews and of Israel—historically, religiously, and politically,” he said. “It’s at the heart of the foundation of the State of Israel.”

Neither statement heralds an imminent change in official policy. As De Backer explained, action isn’t possible now because “we’re in a political context where Europe sees Jerusalem as subject to negotiations toward a two-state solution.” But the very fact that current and former senior European officials suddenly feel they can openly acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is new.

Another intriguing example is Russia, which actually preceded Trump in recognizing “West Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital. A statement issued by Russia’s Foreign Ministry in April 2017 said that while Moscow continues to believe that eastern Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state, “we must state that in this context we view west Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” Yet after Trump’s December announcement, Russia voted to condemn the U.S. decision in both the U.N. Security Council and the General Assembly, making it seem that the April decision had either been rescinded or was meaningless.

Then, in March 2018, Russia’s embassy in Israel issued a statement praising “the wise position of West Jerusalem” on a recent controversy (the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain, which Israel condemned, but without specifically mentioning Russia). Though it’s common to use a nation’s capital as a metonym for the country (“Washington” for the United States or “Moscow” for Russia), I can’t recall any use of “Jerusalem” to refer to Israel; that has always been taboo. So Russia is apparently sticking by its recognition; it just isn’t willing to give Trump any credit on the issue.

Obviously, Jerusalem isn’t going to be flooded with new embassies anytime soon, for reasons having little to do with Trump, as the Czech case makes clear.

But the more acceptable it becomes for people to admit that Jerusalem is and always will be Israel’s capital, the harder it becomes for others to maintain their decades-old denialism. And Trump has played an important role in moving this process forward.

In that sense, he’s like the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” A young child obviously isn’t a respected role model for the adults around him, yet it was only after that little boy publicly declared the emperor naked that the adults could bring themselves to admit the same.

Andersen’s point was that telling the truth has a power of its own, regardless of the speaker. And Trump’s truth-telling on Jerusalem is already demonstrating a similar power, regardless of the speaker’s flaws.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on May 8, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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