Argument

Trump’s Jerusalem Theatrics Have Dealt A Blow to Peace

The president's reckless move reversed decades of sensible bipartisan policy. Holding out the possibility of a Palestinian capital in the holy city can keep hope for a negotiated settlement alive.

A young Palestinian in front of the Dome of the Rock at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City on December 8, 2017.
A young Palestinian in front of the Dome of the Rock at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City on December 8, 2017. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)

On May 14, Israeli and American dignitaries gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv. Back in Washington, President Donald Trump declared, “While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver.  Today, I am delivering.”

It turns out there were good reasons why past U.S. administrations did not move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. It was not, as Trump has alleged, because they lacked the courage of their campaign convictions. It was also not because they feared violence, though we have seen plenty of that in the past few days, with scores of Palestinians killed and hundreds more wounded in clashes with Israeli security forces along the Gaza border.

It was because officials in previous Democratic and Republican administrations knew that recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, while getting nothing in return, meant that the United States would be abdicating any real role in promoting Middle East peace. That’s because the status of Jerusalem is a deeply emotive issue and has long been viewed, correctly, as a final-status question to be resolved only in the context of a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Fortunately, for those interested in righting the ship now or in the future, there may be a way to turn this strategic mistake into an opportunity.

First, a bit of context. When I arrived as the new director for Israeli and Palestinian affairs at the national security council in May 2009, one of my first tasks was to process President Obama’s waiver of the Jerusalem Embassy Act – a law passed by Congress in 1995 mandating the relocation of the embassy unless the president waived this requirement on national security grounds. The justification behind this waiver had been consistent since when I served as a U.S. diplomat in Jerusalem under President George W. Bush from 2002 to 2004. U.S. officials knew that complying with the law and relocating the embassy to Jerusalem would contradict the longstanding U.S. position that the status of the city should be resolved in negotiations between the two parties.

To be clear, no one I know in the U.S. government believed the status quo was ideal. Our policy meant that the United States did not recognize core areas of West Jerusalem – the Knesset, the President’s Residence, Yad Vashem – as part of Israel. U.S. statements from the city were issued from “Jerusalem,” with no country following it, as if the city levitated above the system of nation-states in the Middle East.

But, as we argued to Congress, changing this situation without an agreement between the parties could seriously set back the cause of peace. That’s because, after conquering the eastern part of the city in the 1967 war, Israel greatly expanded the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem and then unilaterally passed a law that effectively annexed the entire city in 1980. Despite international opprobrium and censure from the United Nations Security Council, including the United States, Israel soon declared that the city was its “eternal, undivided” capital, precluding Palestinian claims to a capital in Arab East Jerusalem.

Given this history, a series of policymakers on both sides of the aisle in successive administrations determined that a decision to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem would be tantamount to acceptance of Israeli sovereignty over the entire city and thereby prejudge one of the most important final status issues in the conflict. It would be akin to endorsing maximalist Palestinian demands on borders, for example, without any corresponding agreement on issues important to Israel. For these reasons, neither the Bush nor the Obama Administration ever seriously considered moving the embassy from Tel Aviv.

We have now seen the cost of throwing such caution to the wind. Since the Trump administration announced that it would relocate the embassy, the Palestinians have rejected any role for the United States in brokering Middle East peace. The Arab states with which Israel seeks to normalize relations have had to emphasize their strong opposition to U.S. and Israeli policy, and thousands of Palestinians have clashed with Israeli security forces at the border in Gaza with mounting casualties.

In response, Trump has said that he has taken Jerusalem “off the table,” and implied that the Palestinians and Arabs will soon get used to it. Many Palestinians would question if Trump even knows where the table is. Despite decades of Israeli dominance and the establishment of settlements throughout the West Bank, Palestinian demands for a state on the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as their capital have not changed. While the Palestinians may be no closer to nationhood, they have blocked Israel from achieving the peace and normalcy that it seeks, and in the often zero-sum world of the Middle East that is enough reason to persist.

There is also the risk that the world may now face something worse than a diplomatic confrontation. If the protests in Gaza continue, pressure may build on Palestinians in the West Bank and even East Jerusalem to follow suit, as we saw in recent years with the spate of knife and then bulldozer attacks against Israeli civilians. This could in turn put the Palestinian Authority, with which the U.S. and Israel have worked closely for years to maintain stability in the West Bank, in an increasingly untenable situation.

With an aging and deeply unpopular leadership, the PA will find it difficult to serve as Israel’s policeman if Palestinians in the West Bank try to push past Israeli checkpoints. And while Israel rightly condemned PA President Abbas’s recent anti-Semitic speech, it still seeks his support on the ground.

In the worst case scenario, the government of Jordan, with its large Palestinian population and its own historic role in safeguarding Muslim sites in Jerusalem, could also come under pressure to scale back its cooperation with Israel. While most Arab states seem to have lost patience with the Palestinians and Abbas in particular, they also recognize the emotional power of this issue among their citizens and will be wary of appearing on the wrong side of an escalating conflict. In sum, Trump’s foolish decision could imperil years of painstaking work to ensure both Israeli and regional security.

Unfortunately, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demonstrated when he literally turned his back on journalists’ questions about the clashes in Gaza, the Trump administration seems blithely unconcerned with the consequences of its own recklessness. But if the situation does escalate quickly, even the Trump administration may need to consider ways of defusing tensions.

There is at least one option that offers some hope: to hold out recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine in the context of a broader set of U.S. or international parameters on final-status issues. There are many such models, including the Clinton Parameters of 2000 and the Ehud Olmert-Mahmoud Abbas discussions of 2008, both of which envisioned that the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem would serve as Israel’s capital while the Arab neighborhoods would serve as the capital of Palestine.

These ideas align with the reality on the ground. After all, few Israelis venture into the majority-Arab sections of East Jerusalem and most recognize that no peace is possible without Palestinian sovereignty over at least parts of the city. The disposition of the Old City and its holy sites, among the most difficult of final-status issues, would remain to be negotiated. On other final-status issues, the Clinton Parameters and the Olmert-Abbas discussions effectively foreclosed a right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel, proposed adjustments to the 1967 borders to account for Israeli security concerns and the presence of Israeli settlers, and set forth security arrangements to assuage Israeli fears while upholding Palestinian dignity.

No one should expect that the parties will accept these parameters, certainly under their current leadership. But putting them forward explicitly, ideally in a United Nations Security Council resolution, would help reveal whether the two sides are prepared for the compromises required for peace and put pressure on them if they are not. This was the case with United Nations Security Council resolution 242 that set forth the original land for peace formula, which was rejected by the Palestinians and the Arab states, only to be accepted ultimately in 1988. The same could be true now, only that the goal would be a comprehensive peace agreement rather than the beginning of a peace process. At the very least, proposing such a framework could restore some measure of confidence that negotiations can produce progress, and forestall violence.

Far from raising the prospects of reaching the “ultimate deal,” the Trump Administration has thrust the United States into the middle of one of the thorniest problems in the region and done little to advance the cause of peace. It may yet be possible to turn this problem into an opportunity before it descends further into violence, leaving a diplomatic mess for the next U.S. administration to clean up.

Prem G. Kumar, a principal with the Albright Stonebridge Group, was senior director for the Middle East and North Africa at the U.S. national security council from 2013-2015. He served as a U.S. diplomat in Jerusalem from 2002-2004.

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