When President Trump issues his pronouncement on Jerusalem, traffic here will stop, stores will be empty and we will be listening carefully. It’s not because we need the President of the United States to tell us where our capital city is located, but instead reflects the anticipation of righting a 70-year wrong — the insulting situation in which foreign powers, led by the world’s democracies, deny the obvious fact that Jerusalem has been the center of Jewish life for 3,000 years.
For us, the details are secondary. We can live with a decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv now, or in two years; and are OK with telling the Palestinians that if they ever agree to two states, they can name their own capital. For us, the issue is symbolic and emotional — finally giving international recognition to Zion, the Jewish Bible’s alternative word for Jerusalem, as the core of Jewish civilization.
In walking the children to school or doing a quick food run, the reminders of 3,000 years of history are hard to miss, including ruins of King David’s palace and Solomon’s Temple. And driving to work or back through the modern city, we pass the contrasting sharp lines of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), the Supreme Court Building and the Israel Museum that houses the Dead Sea scrolls.
Like Washington, London or other capital cities, we suffer from road-closings whenever a foreign dignitary comes to meet our leaders in Jerusalem, heralded by motorcades with sirens blaring. But all this is a small price to pay for the privilege of living here.
In 1948, when Israel became independent, making Jerusalem our capital was a no-brainer. However, the world powers at the time — led by the U.S. State Department and the British Foreign Office — clung to a formula adopted by the United Nations a few months earlier under the label of “corpus separatum.” Resolution 181, which called for partition into a Jewish and an Arab state, marked Jerusalem and Bethlehem as an international zone belonging to neither.
The Arabs rejected partition, launching a war to crush the Jewish state. Israel survived, but Jordan’s army occupied Jerusalem’s Old City, while Israel held the newer neighborhoods in the west. The city was divided by barbed wire, and Jews were entirely cut off from their sacred sites, including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall — which survived the Roman destruction 2000 years ago.
Ignoring the new reality, diplomats and world politicians clung to the myth of “corpus separatum,” setting up embassies in Tel Aviv and, on official documents, never referring to “Jerusalem, Israel.” After the 1967 war, when Israel responded to another Arab attack by expelling the Jordanians from Jerusalem and reuniting the city, making all parts accessible, the old slogans in Washington, London and Paris still did not change, and now — 50 years later — the absurdity continues.
Birth certificates for our children and passports for U.S. citizens living in Jerusalem do not refer to “Israel.” And during President Obama’s trip in October 2016 for the funeral of Shimon Peres, the White House accidently circulated a statement from “Jerusalem, Israel,” and then re-issued the document, conspicuously deleting “Israel.”
Jerusalem, including the half located in Israel since 1948, was still not recognized as part of our country.
Over the years and multiple administrations — Republican and Democratic — two standard excuses were given, without much thought. The first was to tie the status of Jerusalem to an imagined peace agreement. Therefore, the best way for the Palestinians to prevent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was simply to avoid negotiations. Indeed, at the failed 2000 Camp David Summit, Arafat told Clinton that Jews have no historic rights in Jerusalem; this was and remains standard Palestinian propaganda.
The other excuse is that if a change in the status of Jerusalem is made without a broad agreement, the Palestinians and their Arab and Muslim allies around the world will respond with terror and rage. In the past day, threats of violence have been heard from PLO head Mahmoud Abbas to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the past, these threats have deterred leaders, including President George W. Bush, from doing the right thing in Jerusalem.
On this as on other issues, President Trump is not showing signs of backing away. Jerusalemites, Israelis and Jews around the world have waited 70 years for this moment. And we will gladly take more gridlock and other inconveniences in return.
Steinberg heads the NGO Monitor research institute in Jerusalem and is a professor of politics at Bar Ilan University.