Travel abroad, as I have for the past few weeks — lecturing on a cruise ship from Abu Dhabi toward Mauritius — and simply say, “Jerusalem.” You will get a strong reaction. People of all religions care what happens to the city — the capital of a Jewish kingdom under David and Solomon 3,000 years ago, and now recognized by President Donald Trump to be the capital of Israel.
A random sampling of Americans on that cruise ship on Tuesday and Wednesday were divided on whether Trump is acting wisely, but the non-Americans were unanimous: They were harshly critical of what he’s done, and puzzled about why he decided to stir the pot right now.
Foreign governments, including U.S. allies, are also critical of Trump’s decision. The British, who have had London as their capital for less than 2,000 years, and the French, who have had Paris as theirs for a mere 11 centuries, act as if they have a right to tell Israel where its capital should be.
One noteworthy critic of Trump’s move is Pope Francis, who called for preserving “the status quo.” Yet in the Middle East, tense and almost perpetually on the edge of war, what is so great about the status quo?
Putting aside the practical considerations that the prime minister, the president, the parliament, and the supreme court of Israel are in Jerusalem — and that diplomats of all nations conduct almost all business there — why is there a special standard for the world’s only Jewish state? Why is Israel singled out, as if its choice of a capital city may be ignored?
The White House insists that Trump is merely embracing two realities: that Israel’s capital is Jerusalem, and that he promised during the presidential campaign to move the U.S. embassy to that city from Tel Aviv.
In addition, he is warning the Palestinians that time is not on their side in their long dispute with Israel. The longer it takes to reach some kind of solution, the less likely it is that they will get a truly independent country.
Yet Trump also should face some uncomfortable facts. He has just created a new barrier between the United States and many allies. If progress was being made toward persuading Saudi Arabia to assemble a strong, pro-United States and anti-Iran bloc, why risk causing deep offense to the Saudis? In addition, protests in Arab and Islamic countries could include lethal violence.
Trump can justifiably claim that he listened to Arabs, including Palestinians. He gave them a chance. He went to Bethlehem and met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in May. He repeatedly sent his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the real estate attorney who has become a U.S. mediator, Jason Greenblatt, to the West Bank and Egypt, and to Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations to consult on what might or might not work to advance the cause of peace.
Trump might have delivered a gift-wrapped policy change to Israel mostly because it was a campaign promise. Yet it is more likely that his gut instinct — the only guiding principle of his presidency so far — led Trump to conclude that the Palestinians deserved a wake-up slap.
As a keen assessor of winners and losers, he views the Palestinians as serial losers. Trump has no sympathy for the notion that they should get to dictate terms to the Israelis, who won the Six-Day War of 50 years ago. He decided to declare that, unlike previous presidents, he recognizes reality — come what may.
Dan Raviv, senior Washington correspondent for i24News, is co-author of “Friends in Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance.”