As has been widely reported, on December 6, 2017, President Donald Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel, promising to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
What does this mean for the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, and what now will be the United States role on the issue?
Historically, the United States and its appointed officials have helped stabilize and carry out peace talks in a number of conflicts during the post-Cold War era. Dr. Amitai Etzioni, a conflict mediation scholar, has suggested that “mediation” is the United States’ role in the world. American diplomatic intervention has accomplished a lot of great things in its peacemaking activities. A good example was in helping to settle disputes in the former Yugoslav region following the Bosnian War. It is also worth recalling the United States’ role in de-escalating tensions between Greece and Macedonia in 1995. All of that is not to say that the United States is unbiased, nor that their handling of conflicts is without fault. On the contrary, American mediation, particularly within the Israel-Palestine context, while important, has been increasingly controversial.
As of 1967, Israel seized control of the eastern part of Jerusalem, and has, since then, asserted its control over the entire city. The ways in which the Israeli state maintains its command over the city comes at great expense for its Palestine citizens. While the Jerusalem region remains unstable, significant efforts have been made over the years to de-escalate tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
In the 1980s, The United Nations declared Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem illegal. As reported by Al Jazeera, Jerusalem is under the special status of international sovereignty and control. That means that Israel is just an occupant, as opposed to the sovereign ruler of the region. Keep in mind that, generally speaking, embassies are located in a country’s capital. While Israeli law (in breach of international law) establishes Jerusalem as its national capital, due to the city’s complicated status, nearly all nations keep their embassies to Israel in the country’s commercial capital of Tel Aviv. Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem means that the U.S. not only recognizes but endorses Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. President Trump’s action effectively denies 70 years of international consensus, further complicating current and future peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
For years, the United States has positioned itself as the chief mediator between Israelis and Palestinians. By now taking such a pro-Israel stance, the U.S. has called into question the viability of its own role. American diplomats have emphasized neutrality as a critical aspect of leading peace talks, and have been quick to question Mr. Trump’s latest actions. On the one hand, there is the argument that the United States has never been neutral: they have ensured Israel’s security, provided billions of dollars in aid and military equipment, and used its Security Council veto to shield Israel from UN sanctions for its continued building of settlements on Palestinian land. The United States has also been able to maintain its influence over the Palestinian Authority through significant economic support. However, with Trump having made the move he just did, the U.S. now loses significant credibility. And it all now begs the question: is the United States a suitable middleman between Israel and Palestine?
The status of Jerusalem is one of the most delicate issues impeding resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Palestinian leaders declare that a move of the embassy to Jerusalem would be a “violation of international law,” as reported by CNN. If the embassy move indeed takes place, the Palestine Liberation Organization suggests revoking its own recognition of Israel and canceling all agreements between both states. This could lead to chaos within Palestine, possibly leading to a collapse of the already unsteady administration. The region would then be more vulnerable to influence of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. More than that, the consequences of such a move could be disastrous on a larger scale, in that it could create a wave of unrest outside of Palestine, in Arab nations all around Israel.
As of now, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has said that the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem will occur by next year. It is hard to say what will happen next. But one thing can surely be said: that a less-than-ideal situation just became more volatile. With the United States already viewed with distrust in the greater Arab region, if anything, this move will make it harder for Arab nations to cooperate with the U.S. in the future.
As for the peace talks, they likely will be hindered for now. Should negotiations proceed in the future, it is doubtful the United States will be involved. If it is involved, their influence is unlikely to carry much weight with Palestinians and Arab nations.
It appears that when it comes to mediating international negotiations, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have a lot to learn.