(May 8, 2018 / JNS) After President Donald Trump announced in December that he was moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, a friend lamented that the move would have less impact than it should because Trump was so widely disdained both in America and overseas. Yet since then, I’ve heard more foreign acknowledgments of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital than I can ever remember before.
So far, only one other country is definitely moving its embassy—Guatemala, whose Jerusalem embassy is slated to open two days after America’s does. But at least four other countries—two in Latin America and two in Europe—are actively discussing an embassy move. And even if none actually happens, the very fact that this issue is now openly being debated in regions of the globe where Israel has faced considerable hostility in recent years is a remarkable change.
In both the European Union and most of Latin America, official policy has long been that eastern Jerusalem should be the capital of Palestine, while western Jerusalem should be . . . well, nothing. Few countries in either region have ever said that any part of Jerusalem should be Israel’s capital; in fact, some still explicitly declare the city a corpus separatum. In other words, they think Palestinians should get the eastern half while the western half should be an international city.
But now, a decades-old taboo has been broken. Suddenly, several other countries are where America was 20 years ago, with different branches of government actively arguing over Jerusalem’s status.
On April 12, the Honduras National Congress voted to move its embassy to Jerusalem by a sizable majority (59-33), though the decision hasn’t yet been approved by the executive branch. Later that month, Paraguay’s president said he’d like to move his country’s embassy before leaving office in mid-August, though buy-in from the rest of the political system is uncertain.
On April 19, Israeli Independence Day, Romania broke an even more significant psychological barrier by becoming the first European country to announce plans to move its embassy. The president of Romania’s Chamber of Deputies told a Romanian television station that the decision had been made the previous evening. Whether it will actually happen remains unclear; the country’s president opposes the move, and the cabinet hasn’t yet approved it. But the prime minister has formally asked the cabinet to do so.
And in the Czech Republic—whose parliament passed a resolution urging its government to promote “respect” for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by a vote of 112-2 seven months before Trump’s announcement—the Foreign Ministry broke with E.U. policy by declaring, the day after Trump’s announcement, that it recognizes “West Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital. President Milos Zeman wants to move the embassy as well, but Prime Minister Andrej Babi refuses to defy E.U. policy to that extent.
There has also been a notable change in the conversation even in countries where an embassy move isn’t on the table.
In March, for instance, Belgian Secretary of State Philippe de Backer (whose position is equivalent to a deputy cabinet minister) told the local Jewish paper Joods Actueel: “There is no doubt that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. It’s clear; it’s reality. There’s no discussion on this issue.”
Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls—who, admittedly, was the most pro-Israel member of former President François Hollande’s otherwise hostile government—made similar statements that same month in an interview with the Times of Israel. “I am very clear on this subject: Jerusalem is the capital of the Jews and of Israel—historically, religiously, and politically,” he said. “It’s at the heart of the foundation of the State of Israel.”
Neither statement heralds an imminent change in official policy. As De Backer explained, action isn’t possible now because “we’re in a political context where Europe sees Jerusalem as subject to negotiations toward a two-state solution.” But the very fact that current and former senior European officials suddenly feel they can openly acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is new.
Another intriguing example is Russia, which actually preceded Trump in recognizing “West Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital. A statement issued by Russia’s Foreign Ministry in April 2017 said that while Moscow continues to believe that eastern Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state, “we must state that in this context we view west Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” Yet after Trump’s December announcement, Russia voted to condemn the U.S. decision in both the U.N. Security Council and the General Assembly, making it seem that the April decision had either been rescinded or was meaningless.
Then, in March 2018, Russia’s embassy in Israel issued a statement praising “the wise position of West Jerusalem” on a recent controversy (the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain, which Israel condemned, but without specifically mentioning Russia). Though it’s common to use a nation’s capital as a metonym for the country (“Washington” for the United States or “Moscow” for Russia), I can’t recall any use of “Jerusalem” to refer to Israel; that has always been taboo. So Russia is apparently sticking by its recognition; it just isn’t willing to give Trump any credit on the issue.
Obviously, Jerusalem isn’t going to be flooded with new embassies anytime soon, for reasons having little to do with Trump, as the Czech case makes clear.
But the more acceptable it becomes for people to admit that Jerusalem is and always will be Israel’s capital, the harder it becomes for others to maintain their decades-old denialism. And Trump has played an important role in moving this process forward.
In that sense, he’s like the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” A young child obviously isn’t a respected role model for the adults around him, yet it was only after that little boy publicly declared the emperor naked that the adults could bring themselves to admit the same.
Andersen’s point was that telling the truth has a power of its own, regardless of the speaker. And Trump’s truth-telling on Jerusalem is already demonstrating a similar power, regardless of the speaker’s flaws.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.