Empty rhetoric has taken the place of statesmanship. US President Donald Trump’s empty, meaningless words have changed nothing real, but they have touched the raw nerve, the open wound, the core of the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have left us (Israelis and Palestinians) bleeding.
Trump’s speech and UN votes, and the threats by his UN ambassador, have not resolved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or even brought us closer to its resolution, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed. Trump’s declaration of US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital did not change anything. It is unfortunate that the Palestinians didn’t give more weight to Trump’s actual words instead of the symbolism behind them: “We are not taking a position on any final status issues including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.”
Trump also said, “Jerusalem is today, and must remain, a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall, where Christians walk the Stations of the Cross, and where Muslims worship at al-Aksa Mosque... In the meantime, I call on all parties to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, including the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif.”
I have said and I say again – Trump’s speech changed nothing and anyone who loses their life as a result of rioting, protesting or defending Jerusalem in this context is not a hero or a martyr but another victim in this ongoing conflict.
Previous American presidents have understood, along with almost all of the world’s leaders, that Jerusalem is much more than a physical space. It is much more than a national capital – it is the ultimate symbol and heart of our bleeding conflict. We Jews recognize this when we relate to heavenly Jerusalem and earthly Jerusalem. If it was only an urban space, we could easily figure out how to resolve all of the issues in conflict – but it is much more than that.
The wisdom of leaving Jerusalem to negotiations between the parties, to be resolved by the Israelis and Palestinians together, and not taking steps from the outside that provide bias for one side against the other, was found in the understanding that when left as an issue to be negotiated, it remains part of the territorial-identity conflict and does not transform our war into one between Islam and Judaism. That is what we are witnessing on the ground now. That is the ultimate danger of moving a conflict which is very difficult to resolve into one which is impossible to resolve.
If our conflict is transformed into one centering on who owns the truth of God, who speaks for God, who owns real estate given to us by God, which religion’s Holy Book is correct and which is false, we will never find the path toward peace and reconciliation.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not been a conflict between Judaism and Islam – but with the help of Trump, and Israeli and Palestinian voices on the ground, it is moving in that direction. Trump is being aided greatly by irresponsible public figures in Israel, Palestine and around the Arab and Muslim world who have incited more violence and rage and will only end with more people paying with their lives. Not one of them will be “saving Jerusalem” or “uniting Jerusalem” or making Jerusalem their eternal capital. Jerusalem will only be saved and sanctified when there is agreement between the parties in the conflict and not by any outside agitators – even if they are president of the United States.
We may be living with a very false sense of security. But no one in Israel should for a moment believe the lies they are being told about the “great sense of security” that this government has created, or enhanced. It is time to understand that there is a profound difference between “a sense of security” and actual security. Israel is less secure today following Trump’s pronouncements than it was before. A sense of security can be enhanced by declarations, even by walls and fences and even, perhaps, by arresting Palestinian teenage girls who slap soldiers. But that is a far cry from real security.
Real security will only really exist for Israel when Israel is at peace with it neighbors, and that does not mean simply peace agreements signed with leaders (Egypt and Jordan) or intelligence cooperation with other leaders (Saudi Arabia), but rather the people of the region – Israelis and Arabs, including Palestinians, accepting each other, living free next to each and willing to cooperate with each other. That will never happen as long as the Palestinian people are under Israeli occupation and their land and borders are completely controlled by Israel.
It will never happen while the Arabs and Muslims and mainly the Palestinians are denied the national and religious rights in Jerusalem. And as long as these are denied, they will not recognize Israel’s national and religious rights in Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem calamity instigated by Trump, who was prodded by Netanyahu, has moved us all into deeper non-recognition and non-legitimacy. Palestinian statements of Jews having no connection to Jerusalem and reneging on their previous understanding that the Western Wall will always remain a Jewish prayer space are a direct outcome of Trump’s unnecessary words. Mutual recognition and legitimacy is an essential part of genuine peacemaking. The emphasis here is on “mutual.” Yes, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and yes, Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine – that is mutual and that statement adopted by countries around the world can bring us down from the extremism and return us to seeking and encouraging moderation.
I propose adopting the former policy and mantra advocated by Netanyahu for years – which he no longer speaks about: “mutuality and reciprocity.” That is the basis to making real peace and it covers Jerusalem as well. Two capitals in one city – Jerusalem, Israel and Jerusalem, Palestine.
The author is the founder and co-chairman of IPCRI – Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives. www.ipcri.org His new book In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine has been published by Vanderbilt University Press.