Over at South Jerusalem Gershom Gorenberg has a thoughtful article where he explains in stark terms the bind that Obama is in in addressing the concerns of AIPAC over an Obama presidency pressing a future Israeli government to divide Jerusalem with the Palestinians, which Obama resolved with this pledge.
Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.
Gorenberg is alarmed as he would rather see peace with the Palestinians and that means finding an arrangement that accommodates the aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians, and the Palestinians want their capital in Jerusalem. This position rules that out, so Obama is going to have the choice of either backing out of this pledge with messy consequences or blocking a peaceful resolution to the conflict, neither of which is very satisfactory.
Could it be that Obama is politicking, making this pledge to secure the Jewish vote with the intention of doing what is best for everyone later? Or could it be that he just doesn’t understand the issues all that well? Nothing that I have seen suggests that either of these are true.
Could it be that political reality–Nixonland–leaves him with no choices as Gorenberg suggests? This is possible but I think there is another way of looking at this which rests on the following observation.
It just isn’t up to Obama or any president of the United States to decide the fate of Jerusalem. That is up to people who live in Jerusalem to decide.
If he were to say this in any other terms then it would appear as if he were providing himself room to pressure an Israeli government into dividing Jerusalem but by making such a strong a statement over a this deeply symbolic issue (with huge practical consequences) he is really pledging not to bring pressure on any Israeli administration during his presidency to divide Jerusalem against their better judgment. Given the enormous power that a US president has to apply such pressure he may be wise to take this issues off the table.
This doesn’t mean that the US president can rely entirely on the judgment of the Israeli government de jure about all matters relating to Israel and the Palestinians. No US president should continue to sign the diplomatic, military and budgetary checks without exerting some well-motivated pressure to come to a settlement that respects Palestinian aspirations. While the US continues to guarantee Israel I think there is an ethical responsibility here as well as an obligation to provide tough love to a friend in need. Obama is saying that over the issue of the capital he isn’t going to apply pressure. Maybe that is just wise to offer reassurances on this and save the tough love to other areas.