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[Daniel Gordis] Trump is clear on Jerusalem, even if his motives are not

Calling it a “recognition of reality” and “the right thing to do,” President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that the US was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and that the American Embassy will be moved from Tel Aviv to the contested city.

The announcement leaves many questions, two of which are primary. The first is whether violence will ensue. The Palestinians and Turks are making threats, and Israel’s security establishment is said to be on alert. But many Israelis are dismissing the dangers of what they call “Trumpocalypse.” Unlike hypothetical steps, such as assigning the Palestinians a smaller state than they demand or ending US support for a two-state solution, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital changes nothing on the ground. Many Israelis and even Palestinians thus doubt that, grandstanding aside, the Palestinians would risk much in response to a statement that merely acknowledges what the world has long known to be true.

The other major question is, “Why now?” Theories abound, of course, but the most obvious explanation is that Trump is seeking both a diversion from his growing problems at home and a bone to throw to his evangelical Christian and Orthodox Jewish base before his support there erodes. Trump’s core supporters will likely stick by him through thick and thin, but there have to be some religious voters who find the president’s open endorsement of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore -- widely believed to have forced underage women into sexual encounters -- distasteful to say the least. The Russia investigation looms, as do increasing questions about whether Trump, his family or his innermost circle may be legally vulnerable. It hasn’t been a good period for the president; if Trump was looking for a diversion, he seems to have landed on an effective one.

There is one much less cynical, although unlikely, possibility that deserves mention. Trump has long said he will forge a deal between Israelis and Palestinians, and rumors on the street are that the “key principles” of his team’s agreement are emerging. Accounts vary. The Palestinians would get a state, though the 1967 lines would not be its borders. According to some, the territory they get would not be contiguous. That would amount to substantially less than the Palestinians demand and far more than Israel’s right flank intends to give them. If the administration is serious about such a deal, Trump needs to buy the allegiance of both sides.

The capital announcement is a prize that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (weakened by corruption scandals and in no position to push back) can use to assuage his right flank. At the same time, Trump may have told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (who is 82 and running out of time) that no one will object if the Palestinians protest or burn flags, but serious violence will not be tolerated. If Abbas wants his state, he may have heard, he had better make sure to keep the response to Trump’s announcement muted.

Netanyahu, in return, may have been warned that in return for his prize, he will be expected to deliver support for the plan Trump’s team plans to proffer. If anyone can deliver the Israeli right, it is Netanyahu, likely the most skilled political manipulator the country has had as prime minister. With his political life possibly nearing its end and with little to show for his years in office, Netanyahu would like a deal like this to ensure his place in history.

How likely is this scenario? It’s hard to say. A careful plan in which the Trump moves slowly and stays on script would hardly be characteristic of his modus operandi so far. But it’s not entirely out of the question.

Trump, not surprisingly, is taking heat from all corners, including Palestinians, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, Christian leaders in Israel and even the liberal American Jewish community. Yet even if he was motivated primarily by his own selfish needs, Trump is right -- he did the right thing.

For decades, the Western world has allowed fear of Palestinian terrorism (or Palestinians backing out of negotiations) to silence claims that everyone knows to be true. Such capitulation serves no one. It doesn’t serve the West, for it renders even the US impotent in the face of Palestinian threat. It doesn’t help Israel, which wants the world to acknowledge that its capital being near the seat of King David’s kingdom and the location of the two Temples symbolizes with utter clarity that the Jews have returned home. And it doesn’t serve the Palestinians, who through the use of threat, have immobilized the West and put off the serious deliberations they will have to undertake if they are ever to get the state they want.

Whether the president has the focus, skill and interest in making this move the beginning of a positive and far-reaching process, though, remains to be seen.

By Daniel Gordis

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. -- Ed.