Formal U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has not spawned the intense violence from the Arab and Muslim street that was commonly predicted. But the question remains whether, as President Donald Trump’s critics say, it will damage prospects for peace and forfeit America’s status as an “honest broker.”
Trump has declared that he is not only honoring a campaign promise and acknowledging an indisputable reality but also making peace likelier.
Who has the better argument on peace? The president does, though he didn’t offer a persuasive case.
Actually, recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem is unlikely to have a major effect on peace one way or the other. There has been no serious diplomacy for years — and the conflict is about much more than Jerusalem.
It’s remarkable that so many commentators offer thoughts on how to promote peace without showing any understanding of why the parties are fighting. So, let’s be clear on why there is an Arab-Jewish conflict over Palestine — and why it has lasted for more than a century.
At the heart of the matter is the conviction that all of Palestine, like all of the rest of the Middle East, belongs exclusively to the Arabs and that it is an unendurable and uncompromisable injustice for Jews to exercise sovereignty on Arab land.
Palestinian Authority schools teach that the ultimate goal of Arab control over all Arab land cannot be renounced without an unacceptable violation of honor. Tactically useful peace agreements may be permitted, but permanent peace with Israel is not. This is a philosophical point rooted in both religious and nationalistic principles that are widely held as sacred in the Palestinian community.
Part and parcel of such thinking is the depiction of Israel as a foreign intrusion into the region. It is called a “crusader state.” The point is that the Israelis, like the Crusaders in the Middle Ages and the French a half-century ago, can be demoralized through relentless violent resistance and induced to pack up and leave the land to its true owners, the Arabs. It’s a common refrain that 130 years had to pass before the French could be expelled from Algeria and 200 years were needed to drive the Crusaders out of the Holy Land; though it may take at least that long to get rid of Israel, the time will come.
It is these kinds of ideas that perpetuate the conflict.
The conventional wisdom for decades has held that the heart of the Arab-Israeli problem is the territory that Israel won in 1967 and the Israeli settlements there. But it should be obvious that that’s wrong. Why did Egypt, Syria and Jordan provoke the 1967 war to begin with? In fact, the conflict goes back long before 1967 — it even predates 1948, when Israel became an independent state.
U.S. officials will be able to help end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict only if they actually grasp what the conflict is about. The conventional wisdom has produced diplomatic failure for decades. It’s time to take a new, better-grounded approach.
Polls show that most Israelis have for decades been willing to make peace with the Palestinians based on dividing the land now under Israeli control. If Palestinian leaders were willing to make a permanent land-for-peace deal, there could be peace. The two great barriers are conceptual. Palestinian leaders have to abandon the belief that Israel is a temporary thing. And they have to set aside abstract notions of justice in favor of the practical question of what’s the best deal available to them.
In the history of political Zionism, since its founding in 1897, the movement’s leaders never insisted on justice or expected to obtain 100 percent of everything they thought the Jews were entitled to. Those in power never treated compromise as dishonorable. They made the best deal possible, did the most with what they got, and created a free, prosperous and powerful state. Palestinian leaders should try to do likewise for their own people.
If this analysis is correct, then U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem might contribute to peace. It reinforces useful messages: Israel is here to stay. The Jews are deeply historically connected to the land and are not foreigners or crusaders. The U.S.-Israeli connection is tight and not subject to manipulation by Israel’s enemies. And the U.S. plays an important role in Arab-Israeli diplomacy — but as a close friend of Israel, not as a neutral party.
There is a price to be paid for perpetuating the conflict: Life goes on, the Israelis create new realities and the world in general adjusts to those realities. The Palestinians do not improve their position — or even preserve it — by remaining unwilling to make peace.
Douglas J. Feith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, served as the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy in 2001-2005. He is currently writing a history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.