The timing couldn’t be much worse, with the anti-Israel Global March to Jerusalem scheduled for 30 March.
Sandwiched between last month’s International Conference on Jerusalem in Qatar – at which a cast of Islamists, Western sympathizers, and UN officials sought to “combat the Judaization” of Israel’s capital – and the upcoming Global March on Jerusalem, the US State Department has stumbled this week through another episode of “Jerusalem denial.” The Washington Free Beacon caught the first round on Tuesday, when a State Department media release on a senior official’s travel distinguished between visiting Israel and visiting Jerusalem. (Adam Kredo at the Free Beacon caught State’s excuse and correction.)
In the Wednesday State Department press briefing, AP journalist Matthew Lee questioned spokeswoman Victoria Nuland intensively as to what the US posture is on Jerusalem as part of Israel (apparently as a follow-up to the criticism on the media release). The Weekly Standard has a transcript of the segment with Lee questioning Nuland on Jerusalem; the complete transcript for 28 March is here. (See Elder of Ziyon’s summary as well, with commentary on the US policy on Jerusalem.)
It is fair to characterize Nuland’s responses as Daniel Halper has at The Weekly Standard: “There was an amazing exchange today at the State Department press briefing when the press secretary refused to say that Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel.” Nuland went on to confirm (repeatedly) that the disposition of the entire city of Jerusalem is a final-status issue, to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs – which is not in itself a change in US policy. The problem is not that statement. The problem is everything else.
Earlier Jerusalem denial
This isn’t the first time the Obama administration has been at pains to convey that Jerusalem is most definitely and absolutely not acknowledged as part of Israel by the United States. Last year, Daniel Halper highlighted an earlier instance in which a White House photo was originally labeled “Jerusalem, Israel,” but the caption was then changed to remove the name “Israel” from it. A series of media volleys ensued, in which Obama defenders insisted that the Bush administration hadn’t referred to Jerusalem as “Jerusalem, Israel” either.
Commentary blogger Omri Ceren discovered, however, that the Bush administration had, in fact, sometimes referred to “Jerusalem, Israel,” although it didn’t always. As with any other major, well-known city, the Bush White House sometimes used only the city name (e.g., Paris, Tel Aviv, Moscow, Jerusalem) in a caption or other reference, and sometimes added the country name.
But Ceren found something else – something (to use Daniel Halper’s word) quite remarkable. The Obama administration literally went through old State Department documents from the Bush administration and revised every reference to “Jerusalem, Israel” so that it would read only “Jerusalem.” There were files online that the Obama administration had no editorial access to, and those could not be changed. But the administration did go through and change what it could.
This pattern can only come across as an obsessive determination to emphasize the not-acknowledgment of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or even as part of Israel. Ben Smith at Politico, meanwhile, turned up documents from previous administrations in which references were made to “Jerusalem, Israel,” and concluded that there has not historically been a US prohibition on making such references. The Obama approach is unique.
US policy, actual
The US policy on Jerusalem since the 1970s has, indeed, been that the city’s comprehensive disposition is a matter to be worked out between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. US policy has changed over time, due principally to the 1967 War, in which Israel, under concerted Arab attack, ejected the Jordanian occupation force from Jerusalem and assumed control of the city. Victoria Nuland was referring to the baseline US policy stance since the aftermath of the 1973 War and the Israel-Egypt peace accord – and the reference, giving her wording, is accurate. She was clearly not referring to the very early US position on Jerusalem as an international city under UN auspices. (This summary of historical US policy on Jerusalem points out that US officials reinforced our modern baseline position – that Jerusalem was to be negotiated between the parties, and was not a UN issue – after the Oslo accords in 1993.)
Washington’s position for at least the last 35 years was well expressed in a statement by Ronald Reagan in 1982: “We remain convinced that Jerusalem must remain undivided, but its final statusshould be decided through negotiations.” The point here is not that negotiated concessions on the boundaries of Jerusalem and Israel’s civil control over it have been unthinkable. The point is that the Obama administration’s posture in conveying the US position is qualitatively different from its predecessors’.
(We must note, of course, that the US Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, ordering that Jerusalem be recognized as the capital of Israel and the US embassy be moved there from Tel Aviv. The official US policy on Jerusalem, which has wandered through different stages since 1948, is a separate issue from the majority sentiments of the American people, which have routinely affirmed support for Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The presidents since 1995 have declined to adhere to the Jerusalem Embassy Act’s provisions, deeming the Act an encroachment on the constitutional privileges of the executive.)
It is deceptive to suggest that US policy has ever had the character of disavowing reality on the ground in Jerusalem, or appearing to invalidate history since 1967 – which is what the obsessive dissociation of Jerusalem from Israel amounts to. The US has instead been pragmatic (if not always enthusiastic or good-humored) about it, tacitly acknowledging Israel’s de facto control, and not taking extraordinary measures to affirm US “non-recognition” of the current situation.
US presidents, even those not especially friendly to Israel, have understood that to do so would not only anger American voters but would also be destabilizing. Insisting on US dissatisfaction with a situation can be read by interested parties as an invitation to actively assail the status quo. We have preferred to resolve the situation peacefully, by starting from where everyone actually is. The US position of impartiality – that is, of acknowledging that there is still negotiating to be done and that both sides must be satisfied – has not until the Obama administration taken the form of specifically scrubbing allusions to Israel’s obvious, historical, and very real connection to Jerusalem.
Altering the character of our “impartial” position matters, particularly in the context of the administration’s much criticized and often unjustifiable handling of Israel and Middle East security issues. As is common with the Obama administration, a shift in posture is conveyed through wording decisions so picayune as to seem ridiculous – yet they signal a real change in approach. It is one thing for the US to be tacitly satisfied with Israel’s control of Jerusalem while being prepared to endorse a different arrangement that the parties may agree to, in negotiations that we encourage. A concern for orderliness and the satisfaction of both sides dictates a posture like this.
It is another, very different thing for the US to insist obsessively that no official US communications can appear to endorse Jerusalem as even an Israeli city, much less as the capital. The evidence indicates that this Obama posture is a deviation from his predecessors’ stances, not a continuation. It is also, in the unyielding context of reality, a clear attempt to affirm a desired or at least theoretical condition, rather than the actual one.
The Global March to Jerusalem
The timing, again, is bad. The Global March to Jerusalem (GMJ) is scheduled for Friday, 30 March. CiF Watch has a website dedicated to exposing the organizers and intentions of the Global March to Jerusalem, and their excellent factsheet names the members of the terrorist group Hamas who are organizing it. (Advisory board members include the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the multitalented George Galloway – ex-Labour MP from Glasgow – and Dr. Mahathir Mohammed, former prime minister of Malaysia and perennial supporter of anti-Israel flotillas.) You can follow the CiF Watch “gmj2” site on Twitter.
The North American chapter of the Global March has its own website. (You can check out the luminaries involved there, including – besides Jeremiah Wright – Cornell West, Noam Chomsky, and Medea Benjamin of Code Pink.) As CiF Watch points out, the North American website’s FAQ section explains why there is a separate organization (my emphasis):
Q: Why is there a separate GMJ-NA organization?
A: Because of the laws governing citizens of the U.S. and Canada, legal advisers in these countries have determined that it is better for them to operate separately and not to participate in the decision-making of the international movement, but rather as an autonomous coalition. This is because some of the groups in the international coalition are subject to legal reprisals in these countries, and there is some risk that any joint decision-making might place citizens of those countries in legal jeopardy. The risk may be small, but this is an extra measure of safety for those concerned.
In other words, the organizers of GMJ are terrorists, and knowingly colluding with them is a criminal act.
CiF Watch also quotes from an email exchange between the organizers, clarifying the intentions of the GMJ (errors in original):
[I]magine a situation where we have more than a million people streaming in from four borders & israel fails to stop the human tide. Once we have broken this mental barrier, then its all over. next time we will have 5 million who will be marching in & it will ony grow from there. This is exactly the nightmare situation for Israel. How do you handle a million ordinary non-violent people who want to go back Home? – how do you handle a million non-violent people who just wish to pray in their Masjid in Jerusalem, which is under our Occupation? Thius will undermine the Israeli state, like no other strategy & then it will all begin to unravel & the Zionist edifice which is unraveeling as we speak, will soon fall. It’s a matter of time now, as we well know.
It is not possible to honestly claim that this effort has any goal short of terminating the nation of Israel. The principal action on Saturday is to be the attempted swarm across Israel’s borders, along with solidarity marches in Gaza and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). Notably, it was announced earlier this week that members of the infamous 2010 flotilla were joining the GMJ and heading for Lebanon from Turkey. Thus, it is likely that, in addition to Hamas, armed thugs from the Turkish terror organization IHH are participating in the Saturday event.
Reportedly, the governments of Lebanon and Jordan are “sponsoring” marches on their territory – which, in the case of Jordan, at least, may be a good sign. Although the Jordanian organizers have announced a rally site supposedly coinciding with the site of Jesus’ baptism nearly 2000 years ago – a false and repellent association of the GMJ cause with Christianity – the Jordanian government will almost certainly keep demonstrators in check and prevent them from attempting to cross the border.
Egypt is unlikely to allow demonstrators to mass at the border either, in large part because doing so would mean allowing them to congregate in the Sinai Peninsula, where security has become a big headache. Lebanon may be a different story, however; in 2011, Hezbollah, which is in firm control of southern Lebanon, allowed people to rush the Israeli border during demonstrations in May (the Lebanese Armed Forces did ultimately move in to control the situation). I doubt Lebanon will permit an actual border breach; even Hezbollah will prefer not to draw an Israeli response. But with Israel being pressed elsewhere, Lebanon may push to see how far she can go.
Then there is Syria. Reporting from the last several days has suggested that activists have been flown into Damascus to participate in the GMJ. A Xinhua report puts the flow of marchers in the thousands, with Jordanian media appearing to confirm the arrival of activist-carrying flights in Syria. The Jordanian report is one of many that tie the activists staging in Syria to Iran. Jonathan Spyer, writing for PJ Media, considers the Iranian connection significant, but he is less concerned about the prospect for major security problems at Israel’s border with Syria.
I tend to agree with him that Syria is unlikely to allow a major cross-border influx, or to mount an attack herself. Obviously, the Assad regime is pretty preoccupied, and has no interest in drawing Israeli intervention. I don’t discount the possibility that Assad will attempt an attention-getting action of some kind, however. Reporting from last year’s Nakba demonstrations in May indicated that the Syrian regime itself bused demonstrators to the border.
It is always important to remember about these events that the respective governments are the entities exerting control. I don’t believe any of Israel’s neighbors feels the time is right to allow destabilizing attacks on Israel to begin – even if the attacks are undertaken by swarms of protesters on foot, who carry no military weapons. (Many of them may well be armed in other ways.) And the organizers themselves will consider their event a success if they can manufacture damning allegations against Israel, and negative photo ops, out of its various manifestations.
But the fact that the campaign against Israel is one of impressions, emotions, and “moral” suasion – honest or otherwise – is one of the chief reasons why the attitude of the United States matters. We can maintain the position that there are still points to be negotiated on the status of Jerusalem, but that need not entail going well out of our way to avoid associating Jerusalem with Israel. Doing so is pointed and tendentious, rather than honest or even-handed. (It’s also a pointed repudiation of an ally’s position – the Knesset declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel in January 1950 – which alone should give any administration pause.) Excising the public record, moreover, has about it the whiff of totalitarian state revisionism.
The February conference on Jerusalem in Qatar punctuated a series of signals over the past decade that Islamist groups are coalescing around a concerted effort to obtain control of Jerusalem and prevent what they call its “Judaization.” (Jerusalem is, of course, already Jewish, was established as a Jewish capital, has always had a Jewish population, and has had a majority Jewish population in the modern era since at least the 1850s.) As I have written before, I don’t project that these groups will unite any time soon. Leadership in gaining control of Jerusalem is, rather, a key focus of the competition between them. But what they will all do is seek to maximize pressure on Israel, campaigning to discourage, undermine, and delegitimize the Jewish state – and capture it on camera defending itself.
The danger and destabilizing potential of this campaign will only escalate. Under these circumstances, the Obama administration’s emphasis – which conveys less the importance of negotiation than the message that Jerusalem is up for grabs – is not a damper; it’s a catalyst.