On Dividing Jerusalem

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.


2 responses to “On Dividing Jerusalem

  1. Mr. Dornan,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response to Mr. Gorenberg’s thoughtful piece.

    What I see left out of your analysis is the same thing I see left out of Obama’s speech — the Palestinians.

    Jerusalem is an equally important issue to Palestinians and religiously to Muslims everywhere.

    The message Obama sent was not just that Israel will not be pressured on this issue it was that there are no other relevant considerations, there are no other parties whose rights anyone is bound to respect. All that matters is Israel and the Israelis. Their security is “sacrosanct”…the innocent Palestinians currently under siege in Gaza are not even worth commenting upon.

    I guess it can’t really be considered news to anyone that Palestinian and Muslim life or rights mean absolutely nothing to the U.S. government…some just find it a little jarring because they “hoped” for better from Senator Obama.


  2. abunooralirlandee: I sincerely think they will get better from Obama. The comments to AIPAC were of course astoundingly insensitive from a Palestinian perspective–there is no doubting this. I do believe that the US President really should stay out of this and leave it to the Israelis and Palestinians to decide. I am hopeful that the Israelis will do the right thing.

    I think the truth is that Obama hardly had any choice but to say this. The reality is that Jerusalem must be shared as Gorenberg said. My point was that it was only realistic that Israelis come to that conclusion themselves; it isn’t realistic for Palestinians to expect the US president to make the Israelis concede this.

    As depressing as the statement was I think people underestimate Obama’s ability to be realistic when he needs to be. I am hopeful that he will be much more strategically adept in his approach to the M.E. And that will be good for Palestinians. I am trying to say I think that there will come a time when the hawks will see his steel too. I certainly hope I am right.

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