In the span of less than a week, President Donald Trump will have upended American foreign policy in the Middle East and delivered to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu everything he’s ever wanted from a White House.
By announcing last Tuesday that he is shredding the Iran nuclear deal, and by unilaterally moving the American embassy to Jerusalem on Monday, Trump has left many Israelis and their diaspora supporters exultant.
But for the majority of American Jews — consistently liberal in outlook and behavior, believing in a foreign policy in which the United States leads in collaboration with democratic allies and upholds human rights wherever possible — it is a moment of reckoning, a challenge to our identity.
Now, it is always possible that Trump and Netanyahu are right, that their grand gamble will pay off, that Iran and the Palestinians will suddenly cave and peace will dawn. In that case, a total rethink may be in order.
It is more likely that they are wrong. And then what?
Like most Jews anywhere, I suspect, I believe that the Israeli capital, and therefore all foreign embassies, eventually belong in Jerusalem. It is the beating heart of the Jewish people, the north star of our religious lives and historical imagination, and ought to be the accepted capital of a Jewish state.
Timing and context, however, are everything.
Daniel B. Shapiro, U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Obama, and now a distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, wrote a column for the Washington Post arguing, persuasively, that moving the embassy will neither set the region aflame or signify Israeli victory. The “sky is not falling,” he wrote. Immediately, that is.
He’s probably right. Little will change on the ground in the short-term, as most embassy operations and personnel will remain in Tel Aviv for a few years. The current Palestinian leadership is too inept and corrupt to mount a serious campaign to assert its own rights to Jerusalem.
But in the long run, I don’t see how a symbolic act such as this — no matter how worthy in the abstract — advances hopes for a two-state solution. It solidifies a dangerous status quo and emboldens the very leaders who seem to think that it’s just fine to continue to occupy another people indefinitely. It doesn’t even acknowledge that Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital, too. It offers no incentives to either side to compromise. Had Trump gestured toward Palestinian aspirations and required Israel to do the same, the embassy relocation could have conceivably moved a moribund process along. Instead he asked for nothing, and got nothing in return.
It’s even more difficult to construct an upside when it comes to Iran. While there were sound arguments to oppose the deal in 2015, beyond the bellicose exaggerations offered by Trump and Netanyahu, even many of those saner critics now believe that implementation of the deal was restraining a very bad regional actor. Because unbiased accounts show that it was.
How else to view Trump’s abandonment of the nuclear deal except as the actions of an impulsive and vindictive president who disregards diplomacy and breaks his predecessor’s word, blatantly offers false and misleading justifications, humiliates long-time allies, and walks away from an agreement that was working without having any known alternative and — again — getting nothing in return?
In both these arenas, Trump’s approach, endorsed by Netanyahu, is predicated on bullying his opponents into submission. Ignore, belittle and starve the Palestinians. Humiliate, denigrate and strangle the Iranians.
Such tactics may provide temporary victories in the cutthroat world of New York real estate, especially when bankruptcy is an oft-used escape route. But they rarely work on the global stage. The Allies bullied and humiliated Germany after World War 1 and look what that got us.
And these tactics defy American, and Jewish, values. At least the ones that have brought us to this lofty spot where, despite the flare-up of anti-Semitism and the challenge of assimilation, we are the most secure and prosperous Jews in history.
We achieved this by being part of an expansive America, one with plenty of room for difference, which on its best days led by example and was big enough to collaborate with other nations and own up to its own mistakes. The virulent ethno-nationalism at the heart of Trump’s “America First” policies, and of Netanyahu’s ever-narrowing construct of who is an acceptable Israeli, is repellant. And we should say so.
In this new order, the values that I, at least, hold dear are now lit in high relief. Clarified. If I am wrong, if go-it-alone strong arm tactics by leaders with anti-democratic impulses turn out to bring world peace instead of further war and strife, then I may be forced to reevaluate my perspective.
But at this moment, I can only reaffirm that’s not how I want America, and Israel, to be.
Trump and Netanyahu own the region now. Trump did what he wanted, and Netanyahu got what he wanted. And perhaps only God knows what will happen next.
Contact Jane Eisner at Eisner@forward.com or on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner. Sign up here for her weekly newsletter, Jane Looking Forward.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.