Reality Check: Capital yes, unified no

One declaration does not change the reality of a capital city that is far from unified.

December 10, 2017 21:21
4 minute read.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence stands behind as U.S. President Donald Trump holds up the proclamatio

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence stands behind as U.S. President Donald Trump holds up the proclamation he signed that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will move its embassy there, during an address from the White House in Washington, U.S., December 6, 2017. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)


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Like many others on the left, Labor leader Avi Gabbay was right to welcome US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Trump’s declaration, regardless of the president’s motives – more of which later – set to rights an historical anomaly which should have been put to bed long ago.

As the location of Israel’s parliament, Supreme Court, President’s Residence and government headquarters for the seven decades of the state’s existence, the western part of Jerusalem clearly functions as Israel’s capital and has been de facto recognized as such for many years by the international community.

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It’s inconceivable today that a papal visit to Israel would entail Israel’s president and prime minister meeting the pope in Megiddo rather than at their official residences in west Jerusalem – as happened during Pope Paul VI’s visit to Israel in 1964, or that the pope would then address his thank-you letter to the government of Israel in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. In fact, it seems that its only the British royal family, out of all of the heads of state of Israel’s Western allies, who still maintain an unofficial boycott of Jerusalem and a state visit to Israel.

So Trump’s move, which carefully did not refer to the city’s municipal borders, was more a recognition of reality than, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu excitedly claimed, a historic moment to parallel the Balfour Declaration or the founding of the Jewish state. But then again, from Netanyahu’s perspective, when praising a president who’s far from shy of tooting his own horn it’s probably best to err on the side of hyperbole.

There was no reason, though, for Labor leader Gabbay to follow suit and issue his own grandiose statement, and declare the day following Trump’s announcement that a “united Jerusalem is even more important than peace.”

Really? Ensuring that the more than 300,000 Palestinian residents of Jebl Mukaber, the Shuafat refugee camp, Kalandiya, Sur Bahir, Walaja and other Palestinian villages can keep their Israeli identity cards and social security benefits is more important than securing a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians?

In one of the most disastrous decisions following the Six Day War in 1967, 28 Palestinian villages were annexed to Jerusalem. Now, some 50 years later, when you combine Jerusalem’s Palestinian and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) populations, we have reached a situation where Israel’s capital today has more Palestinians than Zionist Jews. Almost 60% of the capital’s kindergarten, elementary and high school students are Palestinians, studying a Palestinian curriculum. Is that what we mean by a united Jerusalem?


Ever since taking over the Labor leadership, Gabbay has been deliberately seeking to move the party rightwards in an attempt to capture Center and Center-Right votes in the next elections. Previously he has said he would not evacuate West Bank settlements as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians and even called the settlement enterprise “the beautiful and devoted face of Zionism.”

And so his remarks on a so-called “united” Jerusalem should be seen within the context of this attempt to move Labor rightwards. Unfortunately for Gabbay, it won’t work. Those on the Left will switch to Meretz at the next elections, while those to the right of Labor will either stick with Netanyahu (why vote for an imitation if you can vote for the original?) or put their trust in Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid as the Mr. Clean alternative to a prime minister mired up to his neck in corruption scandals.

Gabbay should learn from Trump and understand the importance of ensuring the support of his political base rather than focusing on possible potential voters. US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital came, in no small part, due to the determined lobbying work of America’s Evangelical Christian community.

According to Johnnie Moore, a California pastor who serves as a spokesman for a council of leading Evangelicals that advises the White House, conservative Christian advisers have repeatedly pressed the case of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem in regular meetings at the White House. Amazingly, from the perspective of a secular Israeli, Moore told CNN that the status of Jerusalem is “second only to concerns about the judiciary among the president’s core Evangelical supporters.”

Given the fact that Trump is less popular than any other US president in recent history at this point in their respective terms (Barack Obama had a 49% approval rating in December 2009, and George W. Bush had nearly 85% support in December 2001, as opposed to Trump’s current 37%), declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital makes sense domestically to Trump, regardless of the rest of the world’s overwhelming disapproval of the move.

So while Trump’s early Christmas present to his supporters is also a Hanukka bonus to the state of Israel, Israeli leaders shouldn’t delude themselves as to the real driver of Trump’s decision or to the fact that one declaration does not change the reality of a capital city that is far from unified.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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