In her 2017 work American Presidents and Jerusalem, Palestinian-American author Ghada Hashem Talhami presents a thorough, well-researched and well-documented account of the struggle over Jerusalem from the beginning of the Zionist movement in the late 1900s through the early part of the current century. Talhami, an emerita professor at Chicago's Lake Forest College, makes a concerted effort to be transparent and balanced in her treatment of this controversial topic. Indeed, in making her points about the motives of the parties to the struggle over Jerusalem, she cites at least as many Israeli and Jewish sources as she does Palestinian and Arab ones. Little could she have known as she completed the book in early 2017 that, just over a year later, President Donald J. Trump would overturn 70 years of U.S. policy — under 11 presidents, six Democratic and five Republican — by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in the absence of a comprehensive peace agreement. But perhaps some foreshadowing of this impetuous decision can be gleaned from a marketing blurb: "[Talhami's] book is an illustration of the perils of downplaying the human rights abuses of junior client states in order to placate national lobby groups in the United States."
In nine chapters, Talhami paints a picture of a long-term strategy — first by Zionist activists and, once the State of Israel came into existence, by Israeli leaders — to inexorably move towards total Israeli control of Jerusalem with global acceptance and recognition. As Talhami presents it, that strategy was highly flexible and adjusted continuously, depending on the situation the Zionists/Israelis faced at any given time. In the early days of Zionism, when the Jewish population of Jerusalem and its environs was dwarfed by its Arab population, the primary strategy was to prevent Arab sovereignty over the city. Thus, the Zionist position was to advocate for "internationalization": given that Jerusalem is the site of places holy to all three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — no one faith group should govern the city, even if Muslims happen to be by far the largest demographic. Rather, per the Zionists, Jerusalem needed to be under international jurisdiction, with each of the three major faiths whose holy places are found within the city having guardianship and control over its own sites.
In the succeeding decades, as steady Jewish immigration to Jerusalem and later Israeli-created "facts-on-the-ground" fundamentally changed the demographic makeup of the city, the Zionist/Israeli strategy shifted to one that emphasized the role of Jerusalem in Jewish history and the fact of the city's (new) Jewish majority. This approach, together with a Zionist/Israeli effort to create a narrative discrediting those Arab leaders who might gain authority over the city — whether Palestinian or Jordanian — as incapable of properly running it, was designed to ultimately win support for full Israeli control and sovereignty
Talhami frames her analysis as a scholarly, non-polemical, unbiased account of the Jerusalem policy of a succession of U.S. presidents. However, as anyone with even the least familiarity with the issue is aware, the course of U.S. policy on Palestine, in general, and Jerusalem, in particular, and the influences determining it have been so shameful and disingenuous from the Arab and Palestinian perspective that it would be well neigh impossible for a Palestinian- or Arab-American scholar to treat the subject with complete dispassion. Talhami's occasional emotional outpourings notwithstanding, she goes well out of her way to maintain credibility and "objectivity" by regularly citing Israeli sources when criticizing Israeli actions or policies and frequently using statements by Israeli officials and public figures when making claims about Israeli motives.
Early in the book, Talhami explains why she is focusing on "American presidents" and Jerusalem. In the preface (p. ix), she cites a July 23, 2013, court decision that "affirmed the president's sole power to recognize foreign states" in a case in which the court struck down a suit by American parents to have their child's birth in Jerusalem recognized on his U.S. birth certificate as "Jerusalem, Israel." Thus, per U.S. courts, U.S. policy on Jerusalem is fully in the hands of the U.S. president, a fact made quite clear by President Trump with his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the U.S. embassy there
Talhami begins her analysis with the period following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine. She cites the infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917, but notes that that document "was silent on the issue of Jerusalem and its destiny." It did, however, state that "nothing should be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine," communities which, Talhami notes "were actually 670,000 people in 1917, while the Jewish community numbered 60,000." (p. 2). During the Mandate, Jerusalem became more open to both increased Jewish immigration and the establishment of foreign Christian religious, educational and charitable institutions. Talhami cites the first census in Jerusalem during the British Mandate, in 1922, as showing a Jewish population of 33,971 out of 62,578 residents. It was under the Mandate that the city's boundaries also began to be expanded, with several new Jewish neighborhoods to the west being incorporated into the city, while Arab villages east and south of the city were not. Talhami provides considerable background on the major developments in Jerusalem and Palestine during the years between the two world wars, noting various proposals to internationalize Jerusalem, pressure for increased Jewish immigration to the region, the elevation of the Palestine issue to one of pan-Arab importance, and the rising urgency of these issues as a result of the Holocaust in Europe.
Talhami next examines the role American supporters of the Zionist movement, and American presidents, began to play regarding the issues of Palestine and Jerusalem. She first treats the views and policies of President Woodrow Wilson, noting that he was "quite sympathetic to the Zionist cause." In her words, the Zionist "ideology of American Jewry dovetailed perfectly with Wilson's endorsement of the principle of self-determination, and his embrace of American Protestantism's traditional commitment to Christian Zionism" (p. 30). During the interwar period, the major emphasis of the Zionist movement was to increase Jewish immigration to Palestine. The displacement of European Jews by the Holocaust played into this imperative. Talhami notes that to counter negative international perceptions of Jewish immigration and land acquisition on the indigenous population of Palestine, pro-Zionist partisans developed and employed three narratives: (1) that the Palestinians were "a primitive people"; (2) that Palestine was "underdeveloped and underpopulated"; and (3) that "the Palestinians were … (in) collaboration with Nazi and Fascist powers" (pp. 32 and 37). She also points out that during his long presidency Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoyed good relations with the American Jewish community but remained skeptical of the Zionist program. He viewed the Middle East through the prism of American interests there, and (as came to light many years after his death) favored a trusteeship in Palestine, with a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew appointed to run the country.
With Truman's accession to the presidency upon FDR's death in April 1945, the U.S. position on Palestine began to change. While not initially in favor of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, Truman was a strong advocate of increased Jewish immigration to the Holy Land. It was during his presidency that Zionist elements began to demonize State Department "Arabists" with charges of anti-Semitism. In the early postwar period, efforts were made to maintain political unity in Palestine under a federal British trusteeship. One proposal (the Morrison-Grady Plan) offered the Jewish community land in the desirable coastal area of Palestine and a 50 percent voice in the national legislature (despite the fact of Jews being just one-third of the population). However, American Zionists rejected such an arrangement, claiming it would relegate them to their own "ghetto" and thwart their "openly stated determination to achieve majority status in Palestine" (p. 41). Nonetheless, efforts at maintaining a unified Palestine foundered, and the idea of partition took hold. This approach eventually gained UN support (despite Arab opposition) and, famously, when Israel declared its independence on May 15, 1948, President Truman extended U.S. recognition to the new state just 11 minutes after its creation, the first country to do so. Interestingly, in describing the machinations involved in getting Truman to support partition and Israeli independence in the late 1940s, Talhami notes that the dominant voice in the pro-Israeli lobbyist community in Washington — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — was not even founded until 1959. In Talhami's words, even from its earliest days "the survival of the state (of Israel) ... became forever linked with Israel's influence in Washington" (p. 45).
The issue of the status of Jerusalem was left unresolved at the time of Israel's founding. In chapters on "The Battle for Jerusalem: Bucking the International Consensus" and "Planning for Expansion: Overcoming the Limitations of the First Borders," Talhami continues her exposition of the patient, flexible, long-term strategy — first by the Zionist movement, and then by the State of Israel — towards full Jewish/Israeli control of a united Jerusalem. These chapters cover the period between Israel's founding and the June 1967 war (the Six-Day War). In its early days, Israel had to counter a broad consensus for the internationalization of the city, a position that had particularly strong support from the Vatican. One approach supported by some Israeli leaders was a division of Jerusalem in which "the Western half of the city should be joined to the Jewish state, while the entire eastern section of Jerusalem, or the Arab side, should be internationalized" (p. 49). This approach failed to gain UN support, and the struggle over control of Jerusalem devolved into one between Jordan and Israel. What emerged was a "functional internationalization" of the holy sites under Jordanian sovereignty in East Jerusalem and Israeli annexation of West Jerusalem.
Prior to discussing the outcome of the Six Day War, Talhami describes the gambits of the Israeli and Arab sides in the leadup to the war. Her account is decidedly pro-Arab, including such statements as "Egyptian maneuvers in the Sinai Peninsula were defensive in nature," and "the United States made no objection to the pre-emptive nature of the planned [Israeli] attack" (p. 87). Her treatment proceeds along similar lines in describing the conduct of the war and its immediate aftermath. In a chapter tellingly entitled "War Unites Jerusalem," Talhami notes an initial hesitancy on the part of Israeli leaders to annex East Jerusalem, a hesitancy that disappeared once Israeli troops had occupied it. She cites several developments that affected/complicated Israeli plans for postwar Jerusalem, including a decision "to reject the Soviet call for a return to the former borders as they existed before the outbreak of the war"; "Israel's attack on the USS Liberty"; the famous "Three No's" of the Arab League Summit in Khartoum in late summer 1967: "recognizing Israel, negotiating with the enemy, or accepting Israel's peace offer"; and "steps by various Arab oil-producing countries to sharpen the so-called 'oil weapon' in the battle for Jerusalem and Arab Palestine" (pp. 102-103). Talhami also cites Israeli actions designed "to change the status of several areas of the Old City in order to block the possibility of returning to the pre-June 1967 territorial status quo," including the "demolition of the Mughrabi Quarter, located near the Wailing Wall (p. 104), "enlarge the Jewish area and link it to the Moroccan (Mughrabi) Quarter, reserving it exclusively for Jewish residents" (p. 107), and "'municipal integration,' avoiding the term 'annexation'" … "to assure the smooth functioning of services in both sections of the city" (p. 109). Talhami also notes here that the "seeds of the settlement policy were sown in this era" (p. 119).
Talhami's remaining chapters focus on "Israeli Faits Accomplis" and the various peace initiatives launched during five decades of Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Early in her discussion she notes "the evolution of a linguistic pattern" (p. 129) designed to frame the issues in a way favorable to Israel. She cites such talking points as the claim of "Israel's right to have 'secure borders'"; Israel's offer of "land for peace"; "referring to all acts of [Palestinian] resistance as 'terrorism'"; "the emerging geopolitical concept of Greater Israel"; "the experience of the Holocaust"; "Arab intransigence"; etc. (pp. 129-134). Per Talhami, most observers would conclude that Israel and its supporters have been quite successful in framing the narrative concerning Jerusalem and the Arab-Israel conflict to their advantage.
Talhami provides a brief but helpful analysis of UN Resolution 242, adopted in November 1967 to address the aftermath of the previous June's Six-Day War (p. 138). She discusses the linguistic and diplomatic wrangling that resulted from the well-known "studied ambiguity" of the resolution — the (in)famous missing definite article "the" before "territories" in Article 1, which called for the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." As Talhami notes, other official UN languages (e.g., French) contained the definite article before the word "territories." The potential costs to Israel of the resolution were not lost on the Israeli leadership. Talhami cites a statement by then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan against endorsing the resolution since it "placed Israel on a collision course with the Security Council." Through the remainder of the book Talhami notes a steadily growing antagonism on the part of Israel towards the United Nations for its alleged anti-Israeli bias.
Other factors Talhami cites as influencing the course of developments during the succeeding decades of occupation include intra-Arab disagreement on a formula for resolving the dispute; the distracting effect of the Vietnam War on U.S. leaders at the time; the overarching influence of the Cold War on the United States in assessing the Israeli-Arab issue; U.S. animosity towards the Arabs, triggered by the Arab oil embargo; Israel's delaying tactics in negotiations and its success at creating "facts on the ground" through robust settlement activity; the emergence of Jerusalem — in place of the plight of the Palestinians — as the priority for the Arab states; the U.S. commitment to Israel's "qualitative military edge" over the Arabs; Iran's emergence as the Palestinian champion in the region; and a growing perception (at least by Israeli and U.S. leaders) that Arab support for the Palestinians represented merely lip service rather than a sincere commitment to a just resolution of the conflict.
However, overshadowing all of these influences was the fact that, in Talhami's words, "The United States did everything in its power to support Israel militarily, economically and diplomatically over the years" (p. 205). And in this connection, Talhami, in line with her focus on American Presidents and Jerusalem, cites the growing influence of presidential advisers who "subordinated American policy to Jewish American interests through influencing the chief executive" (p. 205).
Talhami notes the oft-cited quote attributed to former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban that "the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity" (p. 185). As Talhami's in-depth study documents, unlike their Arab counterparts, since the start of the Zionist/Israeli conflict with the Arabs/Palestinians, the Zionist movement and the State of Israel have been masterful in exploiting the missteps of their adversaries, including their "missed opportunities." Today, however, we are in a new and different environment. Israeli actions and policies in the occupied territories are receiving increased international censure. The issue of support for Israel has become an increasingly partisan one in the United States, and the American Jewish community today has become markedly more divided in its support for Israel.
As noted above, Israeli leaders and Israel supporters had the opportunity recently to celebrate the gift they were given by President Trump with his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, reversing seven decades of bipartisan U.S. policy. Trump's ill-considered move also effectively eliminated the United States as a potential honest broker of an eventual Arab-Israeli peace agreement. Unfortunately, in the context of such unconditional support for Israel on the part of the current U.S. administration, support designed to placate end-times Christian fundamentalists rather than those who truly have Israel's best interests at heart (less than one-third of American Jews supported the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem at this time), Israeli behavior — from violence visited upon Palestinian protesters, to heavy-handed treatment of the Arab residents of occupied Palestinian lands, to settlement expansion in the West Bank and ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem — seems now to be based on the principle that "might makes right."
Growing international anger at punitive and unjust Israeli actions and policies portends a future in which Israel finds itself to be more and more an isolated, even pariah state. One clear conclusion from Talhami's thorough treatment of the issue of American Presidents and Jerusalem is the fact that the Palestinians — as well as many Arab leaders — have, in their conflict with the Zionist movement or the State of Israel, overplayed their hands at one time or another over the past century and more, always to the advantage of the Zionists or the Israelis. To its credit, to this point Israel has never done so. However, as Israel continues to encroach on and expropriate territory essential to a peaceful resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians, and as its current "might-makes-right" operating principle alienates global public opinion and emboldens the most extreme elements of Israeli society, the State of Israel may come to find that it has fallen into the same trap that has ensnared so many players in the Middle East conflict in decades gone by. It will find that it, too, has miscalculated. It may come to reciprocate the gift it has been given by its Arab and Palestinian adversaries in the past and, like them, learn that it has, in fact, overplayed its hand as well.