An End to the “Gentleman’s Agreement” on Israel?

For decades, American politicians have had a “gentleman’s agreement” regarding Jerusalem, Israel, and American Jews. On the one hand, all mainstream politicians kowtow to the (right-leaning) Jewish institutional community and mouth platitudes about Jerusalem being the capital of Israel. On the other hand, once they get into office, they realize that to put these platitudes into practice would lead to diplomatic chaos—and so they do next to nothing.

This is why, for years now, Congress has passed resolutions calling for the American embassy to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—and, for years, Republican and Democratic administrations have failed to do so. This empty, symbolic move would accomplish nothing practical (the “consulate” in Jerusalem is larger than most embassies) but compromise America’s role as mediator in the Mideast conflict, and possibly lead to violence on the Arab Street.

The “gentleman’s agreement” is also why Americans born in Jerusalem are, on their US passports, stateless people. Technically, Jerusalem is still disputed territory, and so the State Department refuses to list Israel as the child’s country of birth. In 2002, Congress passed a law requiring the State Department to end this charade. But, in accordance with the terms of the gentleman’s agreement, the State Department simply refused to enforce the law.

Now in reality, this is absurd. I lived in (West) Jerusalem for three years, and it’s as Israeli as the cellphone. Moreover, while East Jerusalem is indeed disputed territory, only in the parallel universe of the UN is that true of the western part of the city. No peace proposal, including the Arab Peace Initiative, includes a return to the 1947 partition plan. The notion that western Jerusalem is really disputed territory is pure diplomatic fantasy.

A few weeks back, the Supreme Court weighed in. In an 8-1 decision, the court said that the law must be enforced, that doing so was not a political decision under the discretion of the executive branch, and that, essentially, the gentleman’s agreement is void.

This is a victory for common sense—but potentially a pyrrhic one for the American Jews who have pursued it. On the one hand, it will conform US policy to the facts on the ground. On the other hand, it may lead to some uncomfortable consequences: a de facto division between East and West Jerusalem, for example, and an end to the convenient arrangement whereby politicians tell American Jews what they want to hear, yet don’t do anything to upset the Mideast apple cart.

The truth is, the so-called “Israel Lobby” (a term with a whiff of antisemitism about it, but some accuracy as well) doesn’t really want all these symbolic steps to be implemented either. Unlike the Palestinians, whose most recent symbolic gesture—the bid for statehood at the UN—flopped even more spectacularly than their many previous ones, Israel and its American friends have tended to focus on practicalities: money, boundaries, resources… and settlements. American maps may show the Golan as part of Syria, but every year, more Israeli-owned vineyards are planted. To suddenly focus on symbolism is good for fundraising letters, but bad for actual policy.

In this case, at least, symbolism has prevailed. Because it is only a bureaucratic change, and not a geographic or physical one, I doubt it will make much of a ripple. But it may foreshadow greater turbulence to come.

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