Trump’s Jerusalem Policy Is More Ambiguous Than It Seems

And that's going to lead to even bigger problems down the road.

U.S. President Donald Trump with a proclaimation that the U.S. government will formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 6, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump with a proclaimation that the U.S. government will formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 6, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, reversing nearly 70 years of bipartisan U.S. foreign policy. This move places the United States on the opposite side of the issue from almost all of the international community, much of which has criticized his decision. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Trump’s decision as historic, key Arab allies have expressed fear as to what it might mean for regional stability. With widespread protests underway across the Middle East and Islamic world, U.S. embassies and consulates have warned U.S. travelers away and announced their intent to limit or close operations. Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, have cast serious doubts on their ability to continue supporting either the U.S.-led peace process or a two-state solution, putting at risk two of the very policies that Trump argued would be advanced by his decision.

Even more striking than this response, however, is the utter ambiguity of the statement that preceded it. While Trump spoke of breaking from the “failed strategies of the past” and “delivering” where prior presidents “lacked courage,” his speech and the official proclamation that he signed are littered with caveats and omissions that obfuscate the policy change he is implementing. No doubt, this ambiguity is intended to serve as a hedge, one that provides a point of continuity with prior U.S. policy — which had refused to recognize any state as having sovereignty over Jerusalem, let alone Jerusalem as its capital — and allows the administration to avoid taking an affirmative position on some of the more controversial implications of the president’s decision. Yet in the heated context surrounding Jerusalem, such equivocation comes with its own risks.

The greatest ambiguity in the president’s decision relates to the status of Jerusalem itself. Trump explicitly recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, an act that in any other context would also imply recognition of Jerusalem as part of Israel’s sovereign territory. But the president belied this inference, stating in his proclamation:

Today’s actions — recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announcing the relocation of our embassy — do not reflect a departure from the strong commitment of the United States to facilitating a lasting peace agreement. The United States continues to take no position on any final status issues. The specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The United States is not taking a position on boundaries or borders.

How these two statements should be reconciled is not immediately apparent. Certainly the president has been clear that the question of who has ultimate sovereignty over Jerusalem should still be the subject of final status negotiations. In the interim, however, he (and thus the United States) appears to have recognized Israeli sovereignty over some part of Jerusalem — enough for Jerusalem to serve as Israel’s capital, at least — but declines to specify which part.

Such specifics of geography mean a great deal when it comes to Jerusalem. Israeli law identifies Jerusalem as Israel’s “complete and united” capital, implying Israeli sovereignty over the city in its entirety. This assertion of sovereignty is less controversial as applied to West Jerusalem, which Israel has controlled since 1948. But both the United Nations Security Council and broader international community generally view East Jerusalem — which Israeli forces seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War — as Palestinian territory under Israeli military occupation, and thus have objected to Israeli assertions of sovereignty there. For his part, Trump made no distinction between East and West Jerusalem, leaving it an open question as to how extensively the United States is endorsing Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. In theory, his refusal to recognize specific boundaries leaves open the possibility that it is limited to West Jerusalem. Yet his ambiguous stance also leaves space for both supporters and opponents of his decision to infer U.S. acceptance of Israel’s more ambitious claims of sovereignty over the entire city.

Deliberately or not, the case for the latter inference is strengthened by Trump’s total failure to address Palestinian claims in Jerusalem. The Palestinian leadership has long maintained that all of Jerusalem should be subject to status negotiations, and that East Jerusalem should be the capital of any future Palestinian state. Trump’s proclamation and statement, however, cast substantial doubt on the former and do not acknowledge the latter. Indeed, while Trump emphasized his intent to facilitate a “great deal” for the Palestinians and expressed his openness to a two-state solution (something previously in doubt), he never once addressed Palestinian claims in relation to Jerusalem specifically. The closest he got was calling for “status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites,” which presumably means that Christian and Muslim Palestinians are expected to retain access to the Old City in East Jerusalem, where most of those sites are located, for the purposes of worship.

Nor are the parties’ claims the only matters left in limbo by this lack of clarity. The United States’ view of Israel’s international legal obligations, for example, will vary depending on whether East Jerusalem is considered occupied territory or within Israel’s sovereignty. These in turn are likely to inform U.S. policy positions. Will the United States now call for East Jerusalem residents to receive citizenship and the right to vote consistent with human rights treaties? Or will it still criticize the construction of settlements in East Jerusalem as contrary to the international law governing military occupations? Ambiguity on such questions — or the applicable international legal framework — is by no means new to this issue. But Trump’s half step toward recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the city complicates the matter and is likely to resurrect old questions that have long lain dormant.

The question of U.S. views on present Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem would be less consequential if final status negotiations were in fact on the horizon. Palestinians and others opposed to broad claims of Israeli sovereignty could then find solace in the fact that the United States has committed itself to a process that will resolve the scope of Israeli sovereignty soon, with their input. (Though, no doubt, Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty would still be seen as a thumb on the scale in Israel’s favor.) But that is not the reality in which Trump made his announcement. The peace process currently stands somewhere between stalled and nonexistent, and the odds that it will be revived have only been further injured by the president’s decision. So long as these conditions persist, the present scope of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem is likely to be the operative one. And so long as the United States leaves its view of this scope undefined, the parties have every incentive to probe and make inferences in order to discern — and in some cases influence — its true limits.

The most proximate result of this state of affairs is likely to be increased scrutiny of U.S. actions relating to Jerusalem. Each will be seen as another tea leaf giving insight into the Trump administration’s views on the true limits of present Israeli sovereignty. For this reason, each is also likely to become that much more controversial, as parties apply pressure in support of U.S. actions that feed their preferred narrative on Jerusalem’s status. Nowhere is this more true than in regards to the decision of where the United States will place its new Jerusalem-based embassy. Indeed, this may explain the Trump administration’s otherwise inexplicable decision to issue a new waiver under the Jerusalem Embassy Act just two days after allowing the last one to expire, signaling a further delay in the move despite the president’s assurances that it is forthcoming.

Over time, however, our ambiguous position on Jerusalem may have more destructive consequences. For all its ambiguities, the president’s decision has already been read in its broadest terms by many, contributing to the strong negative reactions around the world. To counteract this narrative, the United States will have to take steps demonstrating that it recognizes limits on Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. But supporters of the president’s decision — many of whom also view it as an acceptance of the broadest Israeli sovereignty claims — are likely to treat these efforts as reversals, sparking their opposition. In other words, the ambiguity of its position could trap the United States between the worst assumptions and highest expectations of either side, unable to satisfy either and undermining relations with both as it tries to stumble its way to some sort of mutual accommodation. Indeed, signs of these dynamics may be emerging around the State Department’s decision to maintain its policy of not identifying Jerusalem as part of Israel on official documentation, a gesture toward impartiality that is arguably consistent with the president’s refusal to take a position on the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty but that has already generated criticism among supporters of his decision. This is an untenable position for any state to be in. But for one whose longstanding policy — as Trump recently reaffirmed — is to facilitate negotiations and an eventual agreement between the two sides, it is a recipe for failure.

Avoiding these consequences will require Trump to abandon ambiguity and clarify the meaning of his decision. The president’s equivocation appears to reflect an understanding somewhere in the White House that recognizing Israel’s broadest claims of sovereignty at this stage would be an unmitigated disaster for U.S. policy goals in the region. Instead, the president should at a minimum make clear that the United States views Israel’s present sovereignty as extending no further than West Jerusalem, and that the overall status of Jerusalem — including Israeli and Palestinian claims in East Jerusalem — will have to be resolved through final status negotiations. Further, the Trump administration should make good on its commitment to push hard to restart those negotiations, making clear that its intention has never been for the status quo to persist indefinitely. Indeed, the peace plan that the White House has reportedly been developing could be an opportune vehicle through which it could offer these clarifications. Some supporters of the president’s decision who hoped and perhaps believed that it signaled full U.S. acceptance of Israeli claims of sovereignty over Jerusalem will no doubt be disappointed by these steps. Yet it would once again give the United States a clear posture from which it can engage the parties while keeping their fears and expectations in check.

The prospects for such a course correction, however, seem slim. Nothing about the manner in which this policy was implemented indicates that it was developed with U.S. foreign-policy interests in mind. Through October, President Trump had been indicating that he did not intend to change course on Jerusalem for fear that doing so would undermine the peace plan his administration has been developing. Indeed, senior policymakers in the White House reportedly understood this to be the intended policy as recently as Thanksgiving. The scramble that followed — as the White House prepared to reverse decades of U.S. policy with just a few days’ preparation — resulted in botched messaging, missed deadlines, offended allies, and an ultimately incoherent position that seems to have been designed to satisfy the president’s campaign promises while salvaging whatever was left of existing U.S. policy. Whatever motivated this last-minute reversal, it almost certainly came from the realm of domestic politics, not foreign policy. And there are few signs that these incentives have changed.

Scott R. Anderson is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a Senior Fellow in the National Security Law Program at Columbia Law School. He previously served as an Attorney-Adviser in the Office of the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State and as the legal advisor for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.

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