President Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital Wednesday—and started the process of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
His decision breaks from decades of American foreign policy. It quickly drew criticism from around the world, and many American allies—including Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Saudi Arabia—expressed concern.
“I’ve judged this course of action to be in the best interests of the United States of America and the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump said in his formal announcement. “This is a long overdue step to advance the peace process.” At the same time, the president said he is not taking a position on Jerusalem’s borders, or how the Israelis and Palestinians should share the city. “Those questions,” he said, “are up to the parties involved.”
We spoke with Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former advisor to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State, about why Trump’s decision matters—and what it will mean for the Middle East.
Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital broke from decades of U.S. foreign policy. Why does this matter?
The U.S. Embassy belongs in West Jerusalem. Israel is one of the few countries in the world in which the United States has an embassy in a city that is not the host country’s designated capital. This has created confusion, a lack of clarity and a fiction in U.S. policy.
My deep concern over the president’s decision is that American policy needs to go well beyond addressing the needs and requirements of a single party or constituency. Any major shift in American policy—and the Jerusalem decision is surely one—by definition needs to primarily serve American policy goals. And this requires assessing how the change would affect not only Israeli needs or those of important domestic constituencies, but American national interests more broadly. Declaring Jerusalem Israel’s capital—and, let’s be clear, there was no urgent or imperative need to do so—undermines U.S. credibility and competency, angers and alienates other U.S. partners and undermines the notion that America can be an effective broker in what is now admittedly a comatose peace process. I see no compelling connection between this move and any of these other American interests.
In fact, I would argue that the primary motivation for this decision had little to do with foreign policy or U.S. national interests. The decision was made largely for domestic political reasons, to fulfill a campaign commitment, to please important domestic constituencies and to draw a sharp distinction between this administration’s policies and those of his predecessor. The president reluctantly exercised the national security waiver attached to the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act last June and likely wanted to check off another campaign promise before the end of the year.
Domestic politics is a reality—and a critical one—in any president’s foreign policy. If the president had said in his announcement that he had acted in order to correct what some believe to be the dishonest policy of locating the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, at least that would have been an honest reflection of his motives. But to suggest that the move is somehow related to old thinking on the peace process, and that moving the embassy reflects the need for new and more helpful ideas, makes no sense. Indeed, it strains credulity to the breaking point to accept the notion that somehow, having failed all these years at peacemaking, we need new ideas—and that opening an embassy will help deliver Israeli-Palestinian peace.
What will Trump’s decision mean for the peace process?
Let’s be clear and honest about this: The peace process was comatose, if not dead, well before the president’s decision on Jerusalem. Still, if you were looking for a way to ensure it never sees the light of day, there’s no better way than to push the Jerusalem issue to the forefront. Why inject the most volatile and emotionally fraught issue into the fray at a time when there is zero trust between the parties, when the gaps on Jerusalem are grand-canyon like and when the Trump administration is pursuing an agreement. The U.S. has now taken a position—though granted, it’s imprecise—on the most contentious issue in the negotiation before they even begin. Trump has demonstrated that he regards Palestinians as having no real connection to Jerusalem—or at least, by looks of the language in the statement, not nearly as deep an association with the city as Israel’s—and he’s made even more impossible U.S. efforts to retain the confidence of both Israelis and Palestinians as he pursues the ultimate deal.
A conflict-ending agreement between Israel and the Palestinians was always a long shot. You don’t have leaders who are masters of their politics and ideologies, but prisoners of them. You don’t have leaders with the sense of urgency and ownership, and you lack an effective mediator. To say the least, injecting the Jerusalem issue into the mix isn’t going to bring you any closer to creating that kind of environment.
The Trump administration has said that—despite the announcement—it is not taking a position on how Jerusalem will be shared. What will this mean?
There is definitely language in the statement that leaves open to interpretation and negotiation the ultimate disposition of the final status of the city with regard to sovereignty, boundaries and borders. In fact, I’m not aware of any precedent for the U.S. recognizing a nation’s capital yet failing to recognize the boundaries or sovereignty of the territory in which the city rests. Theoretically, this might leave open the possibility that the Palestinians could lay claim to a capital in the east and, through negotiations, achieve one. But the balance of power—Israeli efforts to create facts on the ground in the east, their rejection of the idea and the Trump administration’s failure (so far) to support such an idea—is clearly skewed against them. That the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, that Israel believes that capital includes both east and west Jerusalem and that the U.S. is unwilling to really challenge that view makes it hard to imagine much chance of a capital for Palestinians in the east.
That language was added to preserve the possibility of some different outcome in negotiations. What the the administration hasn’t done is to create any sort of symmetry or fairness in the discussion. Assuming the Trump administration was not prepared to endorse a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, they might have said, for example, “We understand that Palestinians have claims to the city as well, and that they aspire to part of Jerusalem as their capital. And that’s a legitimate subject that needs to be raised and addressed in negotiations.”
Is it likely that Trump will actually move the embassy?
The original Embassy Act says nothing about relocating the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Embassy Act talks about taking steps to open an embassy in Jerusalem. But it’s reasonable to assume that within three or four years you could make serious headway towards opening a new embassy, assuming the process moves expeditiously. So you could be well on your way to opening an embassy near the end of Trump’s first term.
Alternatively, there are all kinds of things symbolically that could be done now, much more quickly, in Jerusalem. But the administration may not want to make a tense situation worse, particularly from a security standpoint, by creating a brick and mortar target by calling the Consulate an embassy and having the U.S. ambassador operate out of there.
What would the embassy move signal?
It would simply be a reaffirmation of what the president laid out this week. I think this was the most significant step the president could take. Construction of the embassy, as important as it is, is the follow-up step. The words, ironically, are more important than the deeds right now.
And who knows what might happen during the next several years. Who is going to be the prime minister of Israel two or three years from now? Abbas is in his 80s. Are there going to be leadership changes on the Palestinian side? You could end up with a situation far worse than you have now between Israelis and Palestinians. Alternatively, you could end up with a situation that’s better, but that would require different kinds of leaders and fundamental changes in any Palestinian leader agreeing to any deal that doesn’t result in a capital in East Jerusalem. For the foreseeable future, I suspect the peace process will remain trapped between a two-state solution that’s still too important to abandon on one hand, and one that’s too hard to implement on the other.