President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as a prelude to moving the U.S. Embassy there, has thrown a wrench into an already moribund peace process and could well mean the end of U.S. efforts to forge a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. Despite near-unanimous global opposition from Arab, European, and other world leaders, all of whom have cautioned that such a move could have dire consequences, Trump’s decision overturns 70 years of U.S. policy while undermining the basic international norms that have undergirded the peace process for decades. The Palestinian leadership has condemned the move, which it said effectively disqualifies the United States from serving as peace broker, and warned it would throw an already volatile region into chaos.
Apart from fulfilling a campaign pledge made to conservative elements of his electoral base, Trump has yet to explain why such a move is necessary in the face of these risks. But at least as puzzling as the president’s decision is the timing of the announcement, which comes as the Trump administration is preparing to put forward a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative in the coming weeks.
This suggests that either Trump believes the move will not seriously damage U.S. credibility as a peace broker, or he is prepared to sacrifice this in order to score points with his political base. While this would not be the first time an American president has chosen to sacrifice the goals of the peace process on the altar of domestic politics and the U.S.-Israel “special relationship,” it may well be the most serious reversal in U.S. Middle East policy since the United States took control of the peace process in the 1990s.
Jerusalem remains one of the thorniest issues in the century-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as a powerful political and religious symbol for billions of people around the world. While Israel claims Jerusalem as its “eternal and undivided” capital, Palestinians consider the eastern portion of the city, occupied by Israel since 1967, as the capital of their future state. However one parses the president’s words, today’s announcement will be interpreted in the Middle East and beyond as an American attempt to predetermine its status — or even hand it, in its entirety, to Israel — which is destined to have lasting repercussions across the region.
In the short and medium term, of course, there is a very strong likelihood of violence in various parts of the Muslim world. In preparation for the potential backlash, the State Department has warned its embassies and consulates abroad to tighten security measures ahead of today’s announcement. Meanwhile, groups including the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and other religious extremists around the Muslim world will likely exploit the decision as proof that the United States and Israel are waging a war against Islam.
In the long-term, meanwhile, Trump’s decision could mean the end of a U.S.-led peace process. There will be no official statement by the White House or U.N. headquarters in New York announcing such an outcome, of course. But for all practical purposes, Washington’s role as chief sponsor and sole mediator of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has likely come to an end. Even before Trump came to office, nearly 25 years of failed peace efforts had taken a toll on Washington’s credibility as a peace broker, not least among Arabs and Palestinians. Recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem could well be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
President Mahmoud Abbas, who is also the weakest party in the mix, is likely to be the biggest loser as these events unfold. We have already seen how even symbolic gestures in Jerusalem can trigger unrest and violence — most notably Ariel Sharon’s fateful visit in September 2000 to the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, which sparked the Second Intifada, and most recently during last summer’s debacle over the installation of metal detectors at the al-Aqsa mosque, which led to several days of protests, sit-ins, and clashes. Once ignited, popular anger has often been redirected at Abbas’s leadership, whom many Palestinians view as overly accommodating to Israel and the United States.
Within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and his Fatah party, Abbas remains one of the staunchest — and one of the last — advocates of a U.S.-led peace process. But the Palestinian president now faces a daunting political dilemma: the potential loss of the United States, which has been a cornerstone of the PLO’s strategy for achieving an independent state for more than three decades. Having tethered his political fate to the sinking ship of a U.S.-sponsored peace process, Abbas has left himself no Plan B. If he lives up to his threat to walk away from a U.S.-led peace process, he will face an angry backlash from the Trump administration with no alternative strategy to fall back on. One the other hand, if he retreats from the threat, the already unpopular president risks being thoroughly discredited in the eyes of his people.
The death of an American-sponsored peace process is, admittedly, a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around —particularly in Washington. Not just because it is the only peace process we have ever known, but because it is almost impossible to imagine any viable alternative. For decades, the assumption has been that only the United States, as both a global superpower and Israel’s closest ally, was capable of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. As Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat and veteran of the peace process under several U.S. presidents, once put it, “We, the United States, may not be an honest broker, but we can be an effective broker.”
If nearly a quarter century of failure has not been enough to disabuse people of that notion, Trump’s decision to overturn decades of U.S. policy and abandon what little prospect remains for a credible peace deal may finally do the trick.