A Trumpian Israeli initiative
US President-elect Donald Trump won’t even take office for another month, but he has already killed the status quo.
During the election, Trump trounced the untouchable consensus on NATO’s post-Cold War purpose. Questioning the purpose of an alliance formed to fight a war that ended 25 years ago is indisputably a reasonable thing to do. But until Trump came around, no one did.
Since November 7, Trump has continue to reject accepted wisdom. For 44 years no US president would speak with the president of Taiwan. And then President-elect Trump took a call from Taiwan’s President-elect Tsai Ing-wen.
It’s not clear where Trump stands on either NATO or Taiwan. But it is eminently apparent that by ignoring protocol, Trump expanded his maneuver room in his dealings with NATO and China.
Then of course, there is Jerusalem. Since 1948 the US has refused to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – or even as part of Israel. This policy of non-recognition – embodied by the US refusal to transfer the US embassy to Jerusalem – has been maintained by a bipartisan consensus despite the fact that for the past 20 years, US law has required the State Department to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the embassy to Jerusalem.
When Trump promised to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, his words were greeted with cynicism.
But then this week his senior advisor Kellyanne Conway said Trump is serious about moving the embassy to Jerusalem.
In one fell swoop, the 68 year old consensus is gone.
35 years ago, on December 14, 1981, Israel took a Trump-like step. Israel took a wrecking ball to received wisdom.
That day, the Knesset passed the Golan Heights Law. Then prime minister Menachem Begin decided on the initiative the day before. In less than 24 hours, the law when from an idea in Begin’s head into the law books.
The Golan Heights law cancelled the Military Government and Civil Administration that had governed the area since 1967 and replaced them with Israeli law and administration.
The Reagan administration was livid. Begin had neither asked Ronald Reagan for permission nor given Reagan a head’s-up on what he was about to do.
Begin was clearly operating on the basis of the “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission” protocol.
In the event, the Americans weren’t really mad.
Reagan prevented the UN Security Council from sanctioning Israel for its action.
The Syrian regime did nothing. The Arab world yawned.
Israel was spared international condemnation in large part because of the way Begin explained the purpose of the law.
The day before the Knesset passed Begin’s law, the Syrian regime announced it would prefer to fight Israel for 100 years than live at peace with it. That statement, like hundreds of similar ones over the 13 years since Israel took over the strategic plateau reinforced yet again, the basic truth that Israel would be responsible for the Golan Heights for a long, long time.
After the law was passed, Begin and his advisors insisted its purpose was administrative. Israel couldn’t wait for a hundred years to register births and deaths and marriages, they explained. The Syrian legal code, through which the Military Government administered the areas was unsuited to a modern democracy. There was no way to protect the rights of Golan residents so long as Syrian law was the law of the land.
Begin and his advisors explained over and over that the application of Israeli law would have no impact on Israel’s willingness to make territorial concessions to Syria on the Golan in the event that the regime had a change in heart. And indeed, from 1992 until the war in Syria began in 2011, every Israeli government expressed willingness to discuss the future of the Golan Heights with the Syrians.
Aside from safeguarding the civil rights and legal protections of the Israeli citizens and permanent residents in the Golan, the law also defused the issue as a political cause inside of Israel. Everyone could accept the law. Those who wished to conclude a land-for-peace deal with Syria could support the law. Those who wished to retain perpetual Israeli control could live with it.
To safeguard against irresponsible concessions the Knesset passed the referendum law that requires a two thirds Knesset majority to approve territorial compromise on the Golan.
By transferring administrative responsibilities from the military to the government, Israel freed its armed forces to concentrate on their primary mission – defending the country from its enemies.
When Begin passed the Golan Heights Law, he had already learned its basic lesson: When Israel speaks modestly about its objectives, it can achieve a lot more than when it bloviates about them.
Begin learned that lesson a year and a half earlier when he passed Basic Law: Jerusalem. Unlike the Golan Heights Law which changed the situation on the ground, Basic Law: Jerusalem, which announced that Israel’s capital is united Jerusalem, merely described reality. United Jerusalem had been Israel’s capital since immediately after the Six Day War. Weeks after the war the government united the city by expanding its municipal borders to include the neighborhoods that had been under Jordanian occupation since 1949.
Basic Law: Jerusalem was a bit of chest beating. But the beating reverberated like drums of war in the West. And the US responded by enabling the Security Council to pass Resolution 478. Whereas in 1981 the US blocked the Security Council from passing sanctions against Israel for the Golan Heights law, in 1980 it enabled sanctions to be incorporated into the condemnatory resolution.
478 enjoined member states that had embassies in Jerusalem to remove them. Within weeks, 11 of the 13 states that had embassies in Jerusalem had shut them down. The last two were closed in 2006.
The Golan Heights Law’s 35th anniversary was celebrated Wednesday evening at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. There, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and former cabinet secretary Tzvi Hauser said Israel must lobby Trump to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
While reasonable on their face, their calls ignore the basic lessons of the Golan Heights law, and seem to misread or ignore Trump’s modus operandi.
Trump cares about what works, not what looks good.
He isn’t interested in moving the US embassy to Jerusalem because he cares about recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem or over anything else for that matter. If Trump moves the embassy he will do so to advance America’s interests.
In one fell swoop, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem will correct a great deal of the damage that eight years of President Barack Obama’s foreign policies have caused to US credibility worldwide.
There is no single step the US can take that will do more to rebuild US credibility as an ally than moving the embassy to Jerusalem. By taking the step that none of his predecessors would take to stand in support of the US’s most embattled ally worldwide, Trump will show that America can again be trusted. And moving the embassy will accomplish this goal without placing one US soldier at risk, and will cost US taxpayers no more than a few million dollars for construction and moving fees.
On a basic level, from Israel’s perspective, what distinguishes Trump from his predecessors is that he has signaled that he views Israel as an ally whereas his predecessors viewed the Jewish state as a burden.
Trump wants and expects wants Israel to be a credible ally. To achieve this, Israel has some status quo icons of its own to shatter. And the Golan Heights Law provides just the roadmap for action.
Begin wasn’t bluffing when he said that the Military Government lacked the legal tools to protect and uphold the rights of the residents of the Golan Heights. In Judea and Samaria, the situation today has similarly reached a critical moment. And whereas Begin cancelled the military government on the Golan when a mere 6,000 Israelis were living there, today 450,000 Israelis live under military administration in Judea and Samaria.
The Israelis in Judea and Samaria all in live what is referred to as Area C. When the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994 it took over governing authority from the Military Government in Areas A and B – the Palestinian population centers.
A mere 100,000 Palestinians live in Area C.
The Military Government administers on the basis of the Jordanian legal code, which has been revised over the past 49 years by various military administrative orders.
As the human drama taking place in the community of Amona makes clear, the existing legal system is incapable of protecting the civil and legal rights of either the Israelis or the Palestinians living under it.
In Amona 40 Israeli families are about to be thrown out of their homes because Jordanian law doesn’t allow Jews to easily purchase land from Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority has made selling land to Jews a capital offense. Israelis in Area C cannot properly adjudicate their legal rights to land in Israeli courts.
As was the case with Syria in 1981, the Palestinian leadership – from the PLO to Hamas – has made clear that it has no interest in making peace with Israel. Palestinian intransigence has brought about a 16 year stalemate in the so-called peace process which has convinced even true believers on the Israeli Left that the time has come to put aside the two-state paradigm.
The latest person to come on board was novelist and leftist ideologue A.B. Yehoshua. Earlier this month Yehoshua told an astonished audience in Jerusalem that the two-state solution is impossible. Yehoshua then endorsed the plan to apply Israeli law to Area C and grant full civil rights to the Palestinians living in the area.
Trump’s rejection of the status quo and his respectful view of Israel gives our leaders the opportunity to join Yehoshua in rejecting the failed “two-state solution” status quo and act on the growing consensus on the Left and Right that the time has come to apply Israeli law to Area C.
True, to a degree even greater than in the Golan Heights, Israel has the legal and historic right to full sovereignty over all of Judea and Samaria. But it is equally true that most Israelis would be willing to negotiate the permanent status of Judea and Samaria with a credible, sincere Palestinian neighbor.
By simply applying its law to the area as an administrative step, Israel keeps all options on the table while securing the civil, legal and human rights of both the Palestinians and the Israelis who live in the area.
Rejecting received wisdom is far less risky than maintaining allegiance to it when it is wrong. Trump obviously recognizes this. The time has come for Israel to recognize it as well.