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Trump Administration Blindsided Palestinian Leaders on Jerusalem Designation

U.S. officials failed to mention the impending recognition of the holy city as Israel's capital just days before Trump's announcement.

President Donald Trump delivers a statement on Jerusalem from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on Dec. 6. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump delivers a statement on Jerusalem from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on Dec. 6. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Just last week, Palestinian diplomats were cautiously optimistic that U.S. President Donald Trump was on a path that could deliver what the president termed the “ultimate deal” — a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

According to a senior Palestinian official, their optimism was bolstered by a series of interactions with Trump, culminating in a previously unreported meeting on Nov. 30. The meeting included Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, and Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell, who met with three senior Palestinian intelligence and diplomatic officials.

The American side, however, did not inform the Palestinian delegation that Trump would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital at the meeting — even though the president had insisted on doing so in internal deliberations days earlier.

The meeting, which was confirmed by a National Security Council official, a former U.S. diplomat, and a senior Palestinian official, was held as the first news reports that the Trump administration would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital were already breaking. The Palestinian delegation asked whether Trump would sign the waiver to prevent the U.S. Embassy from moving to Jerusalem, which the president did sign this week, but the American side did not volunteer the additional information about Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem.

Instead, the meeting focused on Trump’s yet-to-be-released peace plan, which may now be dead in the water. Protests have spread across the Arab world in the wake of Trump’s Dec. 6 announcement, and hundreds were wounded and at least one person killed in protests in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on Friday. Following Trump’s speech, PLO Executive Committee Secretary-General Saeb Erekat declared that the “two-state solution is over” and that the time had come “transform the struggle for one-state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine.”

“This whole thing is not about the status of Jerusalem, it is about the status of Washington,” a Palestinian official told Foreign Policy. “Washington has been seriously damaged as a mediator, and has isolated itself from the global consensus and international law.”

In an emergency meeting at the U.N. Security Council on Friday, 14 countries on the 15-member council — every country except the United States — opposed the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton told FP that the possibility that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was discussed with the Palestinians and other Arab leaders throughout the year, but that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was not notified of the final decision until his call with Trump on Dec. 5.

The plan to move the embassy came out of a meeting of Trump’s national security advisors that took place on Nov. 27 — three days before the U.S. team’s meeting with the Palestinian delegation, in which they did not mention the impending move. Trump was expected to drop in on that Nov. 27 meeting for about 15 minutes,  but instead stayed for an hour, according to a Middle East analyst familiar with the deliberations. Trump came with “surprisingly detailed questions and he demanded specific answers,” the analyst said. “He made it clear that the status quo was unacceptable.”

The recognition of Jerusalem dashed Palestinian hopes that Trump would emerge as their unlikely champion in Middle East peace negotiations. Palestinian officials pointed to his stated desire to cut “the ultimate deal,” and his appointment of Kushner as evidence that he was serious about reaching a deal. They believed that his status as an outsider meant that he wasn’t beholden to the conventional wisdom of what one Palestinian official termed Washington’s “peace process industry,” and enthusiastic about his desire to focus on a comprehensive, conflict-ending deal within a short period of time — an approach they believed would make it more difficult for the Israelis to drag out negotiations while expanding West Bank settlements.

Not everything about Trump’s intervention in the peace process was cause for optimism. He shocked diplomats in February when he said that he was open to both a two-state and one-state solution, and Israeli TV channels reported that Trump angrily accused Abbas of incitement at their May 23 meeting in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Palestinian officials have denied that exchange occurred.

Nevertheless, Trump’s statements to senior Palestinian officials continued to bolster their hopes that they had found a partner in peace. As a White House statement shows, the conversations began in March, when Trump spoke over the phone with Abbas and told him that he wanted to cut the “ultimate deal,” and asked whether Abbas would accept him as a fair arbitrator. They continued on May 3, when Trump met with Abbas in Washington, and publicly declared about a peace agreement that “we will get this done.”

That was followed up by the Bethlehem meeting on May 23, when Palestinian officials said that Trump told them to get their negotiating team ready for talks to begin the process. The Palestinians did so, and then waited for an invitation from the Americans — which never came. The next meeting took place in September on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, when Trump told Abbas that he would devote “everything within my heart and within my soul to get that deal made.”

The Palestinian official said his delegation believed that the two sides were continuing to lay the groundwork for a diplomatic process in the months that followed. In November, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration had begun developing a concrete blueprint for a Middle East peace deal, and that they were moving into a new phase of implementing their plan.

Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem this week, however, has stopped these efforts in their tracks. Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center and a veteran of peace talks under multiple U.S. presidents, said that Trump’s strategy could potentially be to win good favor with the Israelis for recognizing Jerusalem, allowing U.S. diplomats to extract painful concessions in the future. However, he is deeply skeptical that such a strategy could work.

“The most charitable interpretation is that [U.S. diplomats] are thinking, if we apply a lot of honey now on an issue which really counts, we will be in a very good position to apply vinegar with Mr. Netanyahu in the event that this [peace process] initiative is ever launched,” he said. “How can any Israeli prime minister say no after what Trump has done? But I think they’re making a virtue out of a necessity.”

From the Palestinian side, however, there is little evidence that they are preparing to allow the United States to return as the broker to this conflict any time soon.

“These reprehensible and rejected measures constitute a deliberate undermining of all peace efforts,” Abbas said in the aftermath of Trump’s announcement. The decision, he added “represents a declaration that the United States has withdrawn from playing the role it has played in the past decades in sponsoring the peace process.”

Additional reporting by Dan De Luce and Robbie Gramer.

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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