Opinion | Symbolic, But DestructiveHow Trump’s Jerusalem initiative changes nothing—and a lot.
President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and direct the State Department to begin moving the U.S. embassy there has given rise to a slew of commentary. Some say his decision merely recognizes reality. Others suggest it effectively “puts paid” to the peace process. In fact, both are true. The decision was largely an act of political symbolism, but it is fraught with inadvertent real-world consequences.
On paper, Trump’s statement leaves open all the important questions. It says, “We are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders.” He also called “on all parties to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites.”
As a legal matter, this means that he has merely recognized an abstract concept of Jerusalem—without reference to the real-world issues regarding its boundaries, the possibility of East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital or a resolution to the separate (and complicated) problem of its holy sites. This loophole allows moderates in Israel and the United States to say, “No big deal, he’s just reflecting reality.” But if Trump had really just wanted to reflect the real-life situation, he could have followed the Russians, who in April 2017 recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without any fanfare. Of course, that would not have been Trumpian.
In another seemingly symbolic move, Trump directed the State Department to hire architects to begin commissioning an embassy. It’s true that nothing concrete is going to happen right away: The site leased in 1989 for a future embassy (at the edge of the Talpiot neighborhood) doesn’t even meet today’s security standards regarding how far it must be set back from the street. On the other hand, if Trump had just wanted to make a symbolic acknowledgment of reality, he could have changed the placard in front of the U.S. consulate in West Jerusalem to read “U.S. Embassy.”
Although a good lawyer could therefore argue that the declaration changes little, in reality it carries tremendous practical portent. It specifically tells the 320,000 Palestinians living in Jerusalem that the United States has no interest in their increasingly dysfunctional living situation. The proclamation also sabotages the so-called “outside-in” strategy: using Arab states to negotiate a solution to the conflict and then bringing along Palestine and Israel. Many believe this is Jared Kushner’s strategy, as evidenced by his budding relationship with Saudi Arabia. Whatever Kushner believes (and he is said to have vociferously favored the embassy move announcement), his “bromance” with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman will falter over this matter. It is highly unlikely that a man who sees himself as a future “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (a title the Saudi royals list prior to that of king) would want to be seen as jettisoning Muslim concerns concerning the site of the third holiest mosque in Islam.
Finally, the decision places intolerable strain on King Abdullah of Jordan, a country with a Palestinian majority and one that is central to U.S. strategy against ISIS. Already, the Jordanian parliament has called for a review of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty.
Perhaps Trump subscribes to the argument advanced in Zionist thinker Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s classic 1923 essay, “The Iron Wall,” which argues that Muslims must accept total defeat and recognize they will never uproot Israel, thus clearing the way for Jewish magnanimity in the future. Jabotinsky, a liberal, may have been prepared to offer that magnanimity; the present Israeli right (of which Benjamin Netanyahu is probably the most liberal member) will more likely see the Trump move as permission to further “Judaize” East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In fairness, the president did say that he would support a two-state solution if the parties agreed to one. But his action has encouraged energy on the right that will vitiate any such solution.
Numerous bills are now before the Knesset to entrench Israeli control over all of Jerusalem and its environs. On November 28, a Knesset committee approved an amendment to the Jerusalem Basic Law that would require 80 MKs—a legislative super-super-majority—to approve any Jerusalem compromise, however minor, even if an Israeli majority approved it in a referendum. Ze’ev Elkin, the Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, is moving legislation to detach Palestinian neighborhoods such as Kafr Aqab from the city’s borders, thus casting them into a kind of no-man’s-land (and reducing the Palestinians’ demographic share of the city). And plans are afoot to promote construction in the area between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim (technically called E-1), currently open ground except for a police station and some Bedouin encampments. This would displace the area’s Bedouins, effectively (if not formally) enlarge the city and cripple contiguity between the north and south West Bank. Meanwhile, the right will certainly redouble efforts to promote settlement generally and even to push for outright annexation of the West Bank (as the Israeli “sovereignty” movement urges).
True, the Palestinian reaction so far has been intifada “lite” and the Arab street has not risen up. But violence is only part of the picture. In response, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation declared East Jerusalem to be the capital of Palestine. European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini pledged to ensure that the Palestinians have a capital in Jerusalem. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, declared that “the two-state solution is over.” And the United Nations voted 128-9 to reject Trump’s pronouncement.
Although much of this is posturing, it is starkly clear that it will take a lot of make-up work to accommodate Trump’s recognition decision. The existing reality, while galling to many Israelis, pretty much worked. Trump’s proclamation, though not touching the concrete situation on the ground, could yet change geopolitical realities in ways Israelis and Americans might not want.
Marshall Breger teaches law at Catholic University.