From the perspective of advancing the peace process, President Trump’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his intention to eventually follow through with moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem are inexplicable and unjustifiable. If the president’s top priority for U.S.-Israel relations was advancing his son-in-law’s perennially embryonic efforts to forge “the ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, he has dealt that a goal a weighty blow, verbal contortions and tendentious rationalizations notwithstanding.
Over the last year, since President Trump’s election raised for the first time the serious prospect of the embassy moving, several thoughtful proposals to tie such a move to the peace process have been produced, none of which the Trump administration apparently took seriously. Shortly before the inauguration, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk counseled Trump, in the event of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, to also announce an American intention to build an embassy to Palestine in East Jerusalem after a final status agreement. Likewise, former Ambassador Dan Shapiro asserted that a move could advance the two-state solution as long as the U.S. makes clear that it “expects the outcome to include a Palestinian capital in the city’s Arab neighborhoods, as part of a unified city.”
What these plans had in common was that the Palestinian share of Jerusalem would not be left to mere implication. Instead, the Trump administration unilaterally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without making clear the contours of that recognition, and offering the Palestinians no assurances beyond stating that the possibility for a capital in the city was not foreclosed. Witnessing this spectacle, one would think the U.S. was assiduously attempting to confirm the long-held Palestinian suspicion that the American-led peace process is rigged in favor of Israeli interests.
Understandably, the discussion has now moved to future prospects for a final status agreement. The recognition of Jerusalem is done and likely irreversible; while there is some evidence the base of the Democratic Party is more sympathetic to the Palestinians than in the past, it is close to inconceivable that a future Democratic president will reverse the recognition and risk severe political consequences from taking an action that will be widely deemed as a slap to Israel’s face. At most, he or she will continue to delay the moving of the embassy, which may be just enough to salvage American credibility to lead the peace process (the possibility of Europe, particularly a France led by the ambitious Emmanuel Macron, leading the post-Trump peace process, is one possible unintended consequence of the Jerusalem move).
In explaining the negotiating logic behind the president’s decision, senior White House officials told The New York Times last week that recognition of Jerusalem has the potential to advance the two-state solution in at least two important ways. First, it will allow Saudi Arabia’s ascendant crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, to demonstrate that he doesn’t walk in lockstep with Jared Kushner. Second, by giving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an historic diplomatic achievement, his right-wing rivals in Likud and Bayit Yehudi will find it difficult to justify applying pressure on the government to take hardline positions in negotiations.
On the first point, there is a modest chance of success. Earlier reports of Saudi Arabia presenting Palestinians with a final status proposal far less generous than what Israel has offered in past negotiations did not help the Kingdom or the Trump Administration’s efforts. Restoring titular distance between the Saudi and U.S., but especially Israeli, positions is important in establishing any credible “outside-in” approach that will see a final status agreement emerge from a regional conference (and if we’re to believe Kushner’s statements at the Saban Forum last weekend, a final status agreement is still the goal of the administration’s Middle East team, which no longer includes Dina Powell, its most experienced member). Had the administration opted for the Indyk or Shapiro plan, this may very well have been a positive byproduct.
The second reason, however, betrays the Trump administration’s credulity. First, the White House also requested that Netanyahu and his government’s ministers react in a subdued manner to the announcement, a request with which they seem to have complied. Netanyahu will certainly tout the victory over Jerusalem, but not to such an extent that it will alienate the Gulf Arab states he’s tried to entice. The domestic political benefit will also be limited by the unity of Jerusalem being both a consensus issue in Israeli politics––Avi Gabbay and Yair Lapid welcomed Trump’s announcement–––and one which is not easily defined. Many Israelis, including on the right, do not see predominantly Palestinians areas of East Jerusalem such as Shuafat and Issawiya as part of Jerusalem at all, despite them being within the annexed portions of the putatively undivided capital.
After the already-restrained celebrations end, Jerusalem will once again assume the role of a deeply confounding issue in Israeli society and on the political right––especially if violent clashes in response to the administration’s decision continue or escalate. The Israeli center-left, having abandoned promoting the traditional negotiation paradigm sometime in the last decade, will likely offer limited unilateral withdrawal as an alternative (as Isaac Herzog did in 2016). In turn, much of the activist right that votes in Likud primaries will oppose this. As Ofer Zalzberg and Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group note, “If the losses are indeed limited, many Israelis, especially on the right wing, will conclude that the predictions of a diplomatic tsunami were wrong and that, just as Israel could contain the fallout from this, it could weather the repercussions of annexing the West Bank in its entirety.”
Thus, Trump’s gambit may actually weaken Netanyahu’s negotiating position if protests are contained and eventually wither: the notion of urgent territorial compromise will seem baffling against the backdrop of America unilaterally recognizing Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, without any concession to the Palestinians, and with little-to-no negative diplomatic or security ramifications. Rather than bolster moderates ahead of a diplomatic initiative, the Jerusalem move could embolden annexationists intent on pushing the envelope beyond Jerusalem.