In the special haftara for Shabbat Rosh Chodesh several days ago, we read the stirring words of the prophet Yeshayahu: “Who has heard of anything like this? Who has seen anything like these? Can a land be born in one day, can a nation be born at once, as Zion went into labor and bore her children at once? Will I bring [Yerushalayim] to the birth stool and not cause her to give birth?… Should I now shut the womb, says your G-d?” (Yeshayahu 66:8-9)
Israel has been freed of Barack Obama’s heavy hand and unsympathetic heart but now faces an even more problematic adversary: itself. After years – to some extent, decades – of Israel’s leaders avoiding tough decisions and eschewing what some deem “provocative” actions, all out of fear of the “American” reaction, the tide has now turned dramatically, and an American president is asking Israelis, in effect, what do you want? What are your objectives? What are your goals? An American president is allowing Israel to write its own destiny, and being told, wait. We haven’t quite figured it out. The womb of redemption is opening, and Israel’s leaders are saying, again, “not so fast.”
This has become most clear in the tiptoeing around the issue of the proposed move of the American embassy in Israel to Yerushalayim. Despite a Congressional act mandating such a move that dates back to the 1990’s, no president has carried it out, despite several promising to do so. President Trump has made similar promises and now seems to be hesitating, quite uncharacteristically it should be added. Why?
It is time to realize that the obstacles to the move of the embassy are not in Washington but in Yerushalayim, and, it seems to me, this same Israeli reluctance bedeviled President Bush (41) who also would have moved the embassy but was rebuffed by Israel. In essence, Israel plays a game – declaring Yerushalayim to be its eternal, undivided capital and demanding that the world acknowledge that fact and then, behind the scenes, working to ensure that it does not happen for fear of whatever the fear of the moment is.
To be sure, the location of the American embassy in Israel is not the most critical issue facing Israel or the world today but it is an important symbol. David Ben Gurion located the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv because he thought it unwise to place military headquarters in Yerushalayim, what was then a border town. But no other country on the globe has its capital so disrespected by all other nations, and there is no American embassy elsewhere in the world that is not located in that country’s designated capital. However it is rationalized, it is bizarre, and the claim that such will “pre-judge the negotiations” is even more bizarre and risible. Life cannot be put on hold indefinitely, and there are no negotiations on the horizon that will ever result in Arab recognition of Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital. So how long should Israel wait? Seventy years since independence? Fifty years since reunification? Maybe 150 or 200 years? Enough is enough. It is either important or it is not important, and if it is not important enough to demand it, then Israeli leaders should stop using the Yerushalayim cliché as an applause line at speeches to American Jews.
The subtext here is the assertion that moving the embassy will constitute a provocation and inflame the Arab world. But the Arab world is already aflame, if anyone has been paying attention, and moving the embassy can be added to a long list of “provocations.” That list includes Israel’s declaration of independence, victories in battle, the original settlement of the land, and pre-emptive raids against terrorists. One of the most common excuses for inaction in Israel is fear of provocation. Arab prisoners must be treated royally or the Arab street will be provoked; building in Ramat Shlomo, Har Homa, Hevron or really anywhere in Judea and Samaria is a provocation; not releasing the bodies of Arab terrorists (even as Hamas holds the bodies of IDF soldiers) would be a provocation; and even demanding payment from the Palestine Authority for water, electricity and the like is considered a provocation. Cutting off funding to the PA terror apparatus can’t be done, as that too would be a provocation. There is a pattern; some people must be easily provoked.
Saeb Erakat, who functions today as the PA Minister to Christiane Amanpour, declaimed that such a move of the embassy would constitute the end of all of Israel’s agreements with the PA (agreements, he failed to note, that the PA has routinely breached, including, most recently, seeking unilateral disposition of the conflict before the United Nations). He added that the PA would go out of business, and Israel would then be forced to assume responsibility for all the salaries and services provided by the PA. But this is petulance, a tantrum masquerading as a policy. The reality is that the PA is sustained by the billions of dollars funneled its way by the EU, UN, US and other world bodies. It generates little revenue on its own. If the PA would disappear (it won’t, of course), that same foreign money could be provided directly to Israel that could then administer those lands. And with Israel not siphoning off tens of millions of dollars into private bank accounts, as the PA leadership is rumored to do, perhaps that money would even filter down to the average person, and, one can only hope, actually build new housing for Arabs still languishing in refugee camps after more than twenty years of rule by their own leaders. One can only hope. But of course it won’t happen because the PA business is too lucrative.
The broader point is not merely that succumbing to the threats of violence and terror only rewards and encourages the bully but that Israel finds itself (again!?) at a crossroads. The friendly Trump administration enters with no illusions that peace is possible under present circumstances, and well aware that Israel is both a friend and cherished ally. The real question then becomes: what does Israel want?
People generally become so attached to the status quo that any attempt to change it, at all, evokes gasps of horror. (Change the one-China policy? Oy vey! Really?) Netanyahu has become adept at managing the status quo but strategic thinking is also in order. Life also cannot be put on hold pending a resolution of the Iran problem, and to assert that the embassy move should be postponed (forever) because Iran must be dealt with is a non sequitur. Nations can defend themselves, build homes, manage an economy and maintain a capital at the same time. And an American embassy in Yerushalayim would send a powerful message to the world, Arab and European, that the State of Israel exists, will continue to exist, and its just demands deserve recognition.
Why then would Israel be reluctant to insist that now is the time for the fulfillment of what is the elementary right of every nation – to designate its capital? Perhaps it reflects the ongoing struggle over Israel’s Jewish character and its biblical past, a reality that is not universally appreciated in Israeli society. We must return to Israel’s official disinclination as a sign of its current reluctance to see itself as the fulfillment of Yeshayahu’s vision cited above. But that too can and should change.
“Who has heard of anything like this? Who has seen anything like these?” Has a people ever returned from the dead, from millennia of exile and reconstituted itself? No. It is miraculous, notwithstanding that we are living through it. “Will I bring [Yerushalayim] to the birth stool and not cause her to give birth?… Should I now shut the womb, says your G-d?”
One stage in the redemptive process is world recognition of Yerushalayim, the capital of G-d’s kingdom, which will be transformed into a magnet for seekers of G-d. Should we continue to procrastinate and hinder the next stage of the redemptive process?
“Should I now shut the womb, says Your G-d?” The prophet then continues: “Rejoice with Yerushalayim, exult in her, all those who love her. Gladden with her, with complete joy, all those mourn over her” (66:10). The opening of the womb – the renaissance of Jewish national life after the dormancy of almost two millennia – naturally culminates in the establishment of Yerushalayim as the center of spirituality and the reign of G-d. We are on the verge of that era, if only we want it.
There are moments in the history of nations when the status quo causes stagnation and becomes harmful. It should be obvious that this new President, not tethered to old policies that haven’t worked and not encumbered by the diplomatic shibboleths of the past, presents new opportunities for Israel to advance its destiny. It should embrace it, not run from it. The location of the embassy is not the most significant issue (building, settling, defending and prospering are more meaningful) but it is an important symbol. In a few months, Jews and other lovers of Yerushalayim will celebrate fifty years since the reunification of the city. One-half century, time enough to proclaim that Yerushalayim is Israel’s eternal capital, and to act like it is so. Those who continually kick the can down the road eventually run out of road.
An appropriate 50th anniversary gift would be the relocation of America’s embassy to the city that has been the center of Jewish life for more than 3000 years. The brief tumult it will cause will quickly recede, we will wonder what took so long, and Jewish destiny will edge ever closer to its glorious climax.