President Trump gushed after his election about bringing Israelis and Palestinians together in the “ultimate deal.” Yet now he seems poised to announce a change in U.S. policy that is likely to make such an agreement even more elusive: formally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Such an announcement, which Trump is expected to make Wednesday, is both unnecessary as a sign of this country’s support for Israel — which is rock-solid — and needlessly provocative. Its principal effect will be to cement Trump’s alliance with Israel’s hard-line right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two leaders already have bonded over their loathing for the Iran nuclear agreement and their militant opposition to Iran’s regional ambitions.
The Trump-Netanyahu alliance — and the decision to change decades of policy on Jerusalem — augur ill for the administration’s attempt to revive the peace process, which Trump has entrusted to a team that inexplicably includes Jared Kushner, the president’s unqualified and untested son-in-law, in a prominent role. Over the weekend Kushner told a conference in Washington that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was necessary to “create more stability in the region as a whole.” If Trump actually believed that, he wouldn’t engage in needless provocations.
Why is it provocative to recognize what may seem obvious to some readers — that Jerusalem is the ancient capital of the Jewish nation and the seat of the modern Israeli government? Alas, the reality on the ground is not that simple.
Beginning with President Truman, who recognized Israel in 1948, successive U.S. presidents have been careful not to concede Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. Like other nations, the U.S. locates its embassy in Tel Aviv, despite repeated attempts by Congress to move the embassy to Jerusalem.
Trump promised during his campaign to physically relocate the embassy, as the Israeli right has long wanted it to, but he is now expected to postpone the move again. That makes his expected recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital a kind of consolation prize for Netanyahu, as well as any Trump voters who care about the issue. Yet it too will inflame the situation, because it sends the same message: that Jerusalem belongs to Israel.
Of course, the U.S. never would accept a peace agreement in which Israel didn't maintain control of West Jerusalem, which is primarily populated by Israeli Jews. A more complicated issue is the status of mostly Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and which Palestinians hope will be the future capital of a Palestinian state. Israel officially considers all of Jerusalem its “eternal capital.” A Trump statement acknowledging “Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital might be interpreted as endorsement of Israel’s claim to the entire city.
Trump’s predecessors feared that acknowledging Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would undermine negotiations to achieve a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Those concerns are still valid. On Saturday, Mahmoud Habbash, an advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said that U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would amount to a “complete destruction of the peace process.” On Sunday, Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, warned that it might “trigger anger across the Arab and Muslim world, fuel tension and jeopardize peace efforts.”
Trump can argue, of course, that the peace process is already in a state of collapse. That’s sadly true, and the blame must be shared by both sides. Despite paying lip service to a two-state solution in which Israel would exist alongside a viable, independent Palestinian state, Netanyahu has presided over the expansion of Jewish settlement activity on the West Bank that makes that objective far harder to achieve.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, have been paralyzed by divisions between Abbas’ Fatah movement, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which holds sway in Gaza and which has refused to accept Israel’s existence. Earlier this year the two factions announced a reconciliation, and Hamas issued a statement advocating creation of a state “on the 1967 borders,” which to seemed to imply a grudging recognition of Israel. But Netanyahu’s office dismissed the statement, claiming that “Hamas is attempting to fool the world, but it will not succeed.”
The fact that the peace process is moribund isn’t an argument for making it even harder to revive, however. Aaron David Miller, who advised both Democratic and Republican secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations, said that recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel at this time would be “the single dumbest move this administration has made in the Middle East.”