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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Interview with Dr. Robert Satloff on Jerusalem, U.S.-Israel Relations and More

Giant U.S. and Israeli flags are projected on a wall of the Old City in Jerusalem, following President Trump’s announcement on Dec. 6, 2017. (AP Photo)

The United States officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on Dec. 6, 2017, and announced its intention to move the U.S. embassy there. For more than two decades, bipartisan majorities of Congress have repeatedly called for such action. This important decision corrected a historic wrong, allowing Israel to be treated like every other country with which the United Stated has diplomatic relations.

Nevertheless, some argue that this step was unwise. The Near East Report sat down with Robert Satloff, the executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, to gain his perspectives.

Q: What are your thoughts on the administration’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the U.S. embassy there?

As someone who has been urging various administrations over the years to take this step, I cannot but welcome the administration’s decision.

For me, this is about repairing a historical injustice. Harry Truman did remarkable things on behalf of the creation of Israel. But one of his mistakes was to not recognize Jerusalem—the part of the city held by Israel at that time—as its capital. Instead, he let the State Department take the lead on the issue, and once decisions like this are made, they are not easily undone. The force of inertia in the foreign policy decision making process took over, and decades later we were still stuck with a wrongheaded policy on where America’s embassy should be and what we should recognize as Israel’s capital.

I regret it took nearly 70 years, but this was the right thing to have done. I also think that the statement President Trump issued when he formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital provided important context that too many people have overlooked. For example, he noted that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is essentially a recognition of fact; it is not some leap of faith or injecting some odd American view into the complicated diplomacy of the region. He also stated that this recognition does not necessarily imply American recognition of any particular municipal boundaries of the city, that the recognition does not alter America’s view that it is an appropriate topic for the agenda of peace negotiations between the parties and that America looks forward to an amicable resolution of the Jerusalem issue based on those negotiations. He also noted that the recognition has no impact on the religious status quo in the city, including Jordan’s “special role” vis-à-vis Muslim holy sites.

These are all the right things to have said. Personally, I think it is regrettable that many in the region ignored what the president said when he issued the declaration—since the declaration didn’t negate any particular party’s claims in the city, aspirations for the city, or the possibility of a diplomatic understanding over the future of the city.

By the same token, it is also regrettable that the president later posted some tweets which seemed to contradict the well-thought-out declaration. I don’t really know what those statements mean, but they appear to run counter to the thrust of the core declaration about the recognition not prejudging the outcome of negotiations over the city. So, I prefer to think of the core declaration as the dominant document, not the off-the-cuff tweets.

Q: Is this decision a setback to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

I do not think that the decision is necessarily a setback to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It certainly doesn’t have to be. It is not necessarily anything other than a recognition of existing facts: Israel’s capital is in the city of Jerusalem, and the United States recognizes that and will operate on that basis. It is really quite incredulous to think that the location of the American embassy in Israel—whether it is in a building on the Mediterranean coast or on a hilltop in Jerusalem—is really a factor that would affect the fate of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, especially given the lengthy history between them.

I regret the fact that [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas had the reaction that he did. As a matter of fact, I could have imagined a totally different and much more clever reaction, which actually would have put the Israelis in a bind. I could imagine a wiser Mahmoud Abbas issuing a statement the very next day that said: “You see? Even Israel’s best friend doesn’t recognize Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem. If Israel’s best friend doesn’t recognize it, I demand that we start negotiations directly with Israel tomorrow, and I insist that we begin with Jerusalem, not end with Jerusalem.”

That would have been a very interesting response and would have put the Israelis in a different position than they are now. Instead, he decided to do everything but address issues on the negotiation’s agenda—traveling to this foreign capital and that foreign capital, trying to avoid negotiations and drum up U.N., EU, whatever external pressure. I think it’s sad, because if I were a Palestinian, I would want my leadership to do everything they can— 24/7—to advance my objectives to get the best deal and the most tangible outcome from the Israelis. The Israelis have the asset the Palestinians claim they want: land. They can’t get this from anybody other than Israel. So, avoiding direct negotiations is certainly not a sign of leadership.

I was encouraged by the fact that many in the Middle East took a much more mature view toward the American declaration. While many other capitals certainly didn’t celebrate the idea that America recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, they understood it in the proper context and the proper magnitude, and went on with their business. That appeared to be the case with the Saudis, the Egyptians and with others. I understand the deeply felt views of say, the Jordanians, who have a more organic relationship with the Palestinian issue than any other Arab country. But I think they’ve also come around with a mature view, which is that America remains the principal address as the peace mediator, and to achieve any results, one has to engage in negotiations. So, ironically, Abbas himself is the outlier, when you look at most Arab reactions to this.

It seems that the prophecies about an avalanche of violence being triggered by this declaration have certainly not come to pass—and some of us went out on a limb and said that wasn’t likely to happen. I think the reason for this is the vast majority of Palestinians are more realistic than their leaders: They understand that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. They live that reality. So I am not surprised that the declaration itself did not trigger an outburst of violence. I think most Palestinians appear to have reached the conclusion that risking life and limb to protest something that is as much of a reality as the sun rising in the east does not make much sense.

Q: Some critics of the U.S.-Israel relationship argue that the United States has become too close to Israel, and that this closeness may negatively affect U.S. interests and our ability to help the parties negotiate an agreement. What is your response to this argument?

This is an odd argument. First of all, I think most people in the Middle East view the United States as Israel’s partner and ally—that the U.S.-Israel relationship is so close that they would be surprised to see any areas of daylight anyway. This is the conventional view around the world. If anything, one would have to explain the moments of conflict, not explain the depth of partnership. I don’t buy the idea that the United States is so close to Israel that it somehow loses the ability to be an effective, engaged partner in peace negotiations.

What many people fail to understand is that the American role as honest broker in peace talks is because of the closeness of the U.S.-Israel relationship, not in spite of the closeness of the U.S.-Israel relationship. When the United States is successful, it is not because we are some impartial third party. We are not the United Nations. We are not Norway in the Oslo Agreement, where we could host the parties, set up some nice buffet on the table, offer some ideas and let the parties work it out. That’s not what we do.

The American role is essential because of the fundamental imbalance in the negotiations. Namely, the Israelis are being asked, quite legitimately, to trade something tangible for something intangible. They’re being asked to give up the tangible assets of land and things that go with it for the intangibles of acceptance, recognition and a commitment to peace. What the Americans do is compensate for giving up the tangibles, and they help provide alternative means of security and confidence by reducing the risks of giving up tangible assets. This doesn’t mean that America can’t also have strong mutually-satisfying, mutually-beneficial relations with others in the negotiations, including the Palestinians. If this entire process were based on a zero sum, then it would be far more problematic. But we know that is not the case. Indeed, you just have to look at the Egypt-Israel and Jordan-Israel peace treaties to know that. So when you add it all up, I don’t find that this argument holds much water.

Q: The Muslim World League recently sent a public letter commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day. What is the Muslim World League and why was this letter so significant?

The Muslim World League was established by Saudi Arabia decades ago to propagate the Saudi version of Islam around the world and to be Saudi Arabia’s link to Muslim communities from the bottom up—at the mosque level, at the school level and at the community level. It is the link of the Saudi religious hierarchy to Islamic religious institutions in countries on virtually every continent. Over the decades, the Muslim World League has earned a reputation for funding and supporting an intolerant, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, hateful version of Islam—not necessarily every place, but certainly that was the dominant approach.

Flash forward to the current period, and there has clearly been a decision at the highest levels in Saudi Arabia to clean up its act and to get out of the extremism business—certainly to get out of the business of projecting the image of extremism, and hopefully to get out of the business of exporting extremism altogether. The current Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has publicly committed his country to embrace a vision of what he calls “moderate Islam,” a term that many Muslims are shocked at, because Islam doesn’t come in a range of varieties to many Muslims—it’s either the faithful way or the unfaithful way of implementing the faith.

So it was quite a remarkable statement for the Crown Prince to have said, “No, we need to embrace a moderate form of Islam.” And one of the ways of implementing that is a change in the operations of the Muslim World League—how Saudi Arabia projects Islam to Muslim communities around the world and how it projects it more broadly.

In mid-2016, new leadership was brought into the Muslim World League—someone evidently appointed with a mandate from the Saudi monarchy to transform the organization. The new head is Dr. Mohammad Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister. I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Al-Issa in Riyadh in early December with a delegation of Washington Institute trustees, and we’ve corresponded ever since. In that correspondence, I asked if he would be willing to make a statement on behalf of the Muslim World League on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day. At most, I expected a rather short, brief, sterile statement; imagine my amazement when he came back very quickly with a 600-plus-word statement that was nothing short of remarkable: Embracing Holocaust memory as an important part of recent human history, as an important element in our shared humanity, rejecting Holocaust denial in the most absolute terms.

It was in many respects a path-breaking statement, significant for several reasons. It is significant because of who issued the statement. It’s significant because of the content of the statement. It’s significant because it has since been reprinted in Arabic, in numerous Saudi media, as well as in Arabic on the website of the Muslim World League. If you go to the front page of their website, you will find it there. Once these things are done, and done in Arabic, and done by official state media in Saudi Arabia, they are very difficult to undo. And they reflect an important direction of change. It is not the end of the story by any means in terms of the sorts of reforms that need to happen in Saudi Arabia at the religious, cultural and political levels. But it is not one easily denied or easily retracted and should be recognized for what it is, which is, I think, quite a remarkable step forward.

The idea that the New York Times, in its [Jan. 29] editorial critiquing Poland for its law curtailing public discussion of the Holocaust, would actually cite Saudi Arabia as an example of a country that is moving in the right direction in terms of public discourse on the Holocaust, it makes your jaw drop—Poland, a democratic member of the European Union and NATO, and Saudi Arabia, a country that for decades embraced the most virulent form of Holocaust denial and vile anti-Semitic statements from its leaders. Something is clearly changing in Saudi Arabia, in a positive direction, and while its success is by no means assured, I believe we have an interest in supporting it as much as possible.


Robert Satloff has served since 1993 as executive director of The Washington Institute and its Howard P. Berkowitz Chair in U.S. Middle East Policy. An expert on Arab and Islamic politics as well as U.S. Middle East policy, Dr. Satloff has written and spoken widely on the Arab-Israeli peace process, the challenge of Political Islam, and the need to revamp U.S. public diplomacy in the Middle East. Dr. Satloff's views on Middle East issues appear frequently in major newspapers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. A frequent commentator on major television network news programs, talk shows and National Public Radio, he has testified on numerous occasions to Senate and House committees concerned with U.S. Middle East policy. Among his nine books and monographs is “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands,” which was made into a PBS documentary and broadcast nationally on Yom Ha’Shoah.

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