The New Yorker Can’t Get the Facts Right on Jerusalem

A December 26 “Letter from Ramallah” in The New Yorker is long on emotional, artistic prose, but quite short on factual information.

In “The Power Politics Behind Trump’s Jerusalem Declaration,” author Raja Shehadeh laments US President Donald Trump’s recent recognition that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and his announcement that he will move the US embassy to that city. Shehadeh asserts that, “for Palestinians, Trump’s Jerusalem declaration ended all hopes that the long-moribund peace process might lead to an independent Palestinian state,” and that “Trump and Netanyahu have condemned us, both peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, to perpetual conflict.”

While the author is forthright about his disappointment at the announcement, he’s silent on key points. For example, Shehadeh never explains to his readers that Palestinian leaders have turned down numerous opportunities to have the independent state he seems to want, including with part of Jerusalem as its capital.

Nor does he explain why Israel’s capital being Jerusalem in any way precludes an independent Palestinian state, or why Palestinians couldn’t designate Ramallah as a capital city.There has never been specifically Palestinian sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem, and there is no reason that Jerusalem is indispensable to an independent Palestinian state. While Palestinians may be unhappy over the announcement, it’s simply not the case that the results Shehadeh describes necessarily follow from it.
It’s useful to recall that when the UN proposed the partition plan in 1947, the plan did not include Jerusalem as the capital of either the proposed Jewish state or the proposed Arab state. Even though Jerusalem was the historic Jewish capital, and even though the holiest site in Judaism, the Temple Mount, is in Jerusalem, the Jews accepted the plan and did not use Jerusalem as an excuse for intransigence. Had Arabs not rejected the plan and attacked in 1948, it likely would have gone into effect.

Shehadeh, however, sets forth two arguments for Jerusalem. First, he claims, “it is important to remember that the Palestinians have consistently called for Jerusalem to remain undivided, and urged that when it became the capital of both states, Israel and Palestine, it would remain an open city.” In fact, however, Hamas, which rules Gaza, stated explicitly in its policy statement released in May of last year that “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine. … Its Islamic and Christian holy places belong exclusively to the Palestinian people and to the Arab and Islamic Ummah,” and that “there is no alternative to a fully sovereign Palestinian State on the entire national Palestinian soil, with Jerusalem as its capital.” Even if there is a Palestinian faction calling for Jerusalem to be the shared capital of two states, that position is hardly “consistent.”

Moreover, as the American statement asserted, the acknowledgment of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the moving of the U.S.embassy to western Jerusalem do not preclude – in some potential future negotiations – a Palestinian capital on the eastern side.

Shehadeh’s second justification for his demand that Jerusalem be the capital of a Palestinian state is that “East Jerusalem [is] a city that had been an integral part of the West Bank until the Israeli occupation, in 1967.” In fact, until Jordan captured it, expelled all the Jewish residents, and illegally annexed the eastern part of the city in 1948, there was no such place as “East Jerusalem,” integral to the West Bank or any other territory.

The rest of Shehadeh’s letter is replete with misinformation and illogical claims. Shehadeh complains that, “gradually, during the early two thousands, the Israelis limited Palestinian access to Jerusalem by building the separation wall. They justified it as necessary to stop suicide bombings, but none of the restrictions were reversed when security conditions improved.” This critique borders on the bizarre. Security conditions improved as a direct result of the security barrier. Jewish Virtual Library reports:

Even the Palestinian terrorists have admitted the fence is a deterrent. On November 11, 2006,Islamic Jihad leader Abdallah Ramadan Shalah said on Al-Manar TVthe terrorist organizations had every intention of continuing suicide bombing attacks, but that their timing and the possibility of implementing them from the West Bank depended on other factors. “For example,” he said, “there is the separation fence, which is an obstacle to the resistance, and if it were not there the situation would be entirely different.”

Removing it, as Shehadeh suggests Israel should do, would be irrational and irresponsible, and endanger the lives of anyone in Israel, citizens and tourists, Muslims, Christians, Jews and others.

Shehadeh also claims, without qualification, that settlement construction “violate[s] international law and made the creation of a viable Palestinian state impossible.” As of the end of 2016, Jewish settlements were on approximately two to three percent of the West Bank; Shehadeh doesn’t explain how that makes the creation of a Palestinian state “impossible,” or why Jewish residents can’t live in a future Palestinian state. While there are arguments that settlement construction violates international law, there are also compelling arguments to the contrary. No legal body with jurisdiction to do so has ever held that it is illegal for Israel to build beyond the 1949 armistice lines. While it may be Shehadeh’s opinion that the settlements are illegal, he – and The New Yorker– ought to know better than to state it as a fact.

In addition, he writes that “in recent years, Abbas has satisfied all of Israel’s demands but has still been rejected by Netanyahu. … For many years, I have watched Abbas, whom I know personally, do his best to satisfy the conditions, often ludicrous, placed on him by Netanyahu in order to restart peace negotiations.”

Among the most significant demands Netanyahu has made of Abbas – and which Abbas has rejected –is that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Abbas has vociferously and repeatedly rejected this fundamental requirement for peace. Abbas has also refused to accede to the demand that he and the Palestinian Authority refrain from the incitement that fuels terror attacks.

Another factual error occurs when Shehadeh writes, “three weeks after Trump’s declaration, only one other nation, Guatemala, has followed the U.S. in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.” Actually, hours after the Trump declaration, the Czech Republic followed suit.

Shehadeh chose to begin his missive (one of several New Yorker features that portray Trump’s decision negatively) with a detailed description of some photos shown to him by an unnamed journalist. We don’t get to see the pictures he describes, and, despite his other factual errors, we have to take his word that they are as he describes them: a teenager allegedly being dragged, and a mounted police officer “attack[ing]” women (possibly referring to this photo). He then quotes his journalist friend saying, “and look how careful they are to hurt but not kill these demonstrators. They don’t want casualties.”

In his concluding paragraph, Shehadeh writes that “what I, as well as many other Palestinians and Israelis, wish for is to end violence as the modus operandi between our two peoples.” That is no doubt a worthy goal. But to get there, Shehadeh should try telling the truth.