On December 6th, Trump announced that he was recognizing the holy city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He said that the United States would begin in the next few years to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He also suggested that the U.S. would continue a “neutral stance” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and would support a two-state solution if both parties agreed to it in bilateral negotiations.
However, it is hard to reconcile those three statements.
The status of Jerusalem is one of the most contentious of the many issues between Israelis and Palestinians, and it has complicated the search for agreement in the conflict. Significant religious sites for Christians, Jews, and Muslims are all in Jerusalem, and Israel does not allow Muslims the freedom to move into and around the city. Palestinians claim as their capital the eastern part of the city, which contains the iconic Dome of the Rock (one of the oldest examples of Islamic architecture, easily recognizable in photos of the city). But hardline Israelis seek the entirety of the city as their own. Because of this controversy — and also because negotiations collapsed due to Israel’s ongoing construction of settlements on land that would comprise a future Palestinian state — most nations have maintained neutrality by refusing to establish embassies in Jerusalem (instead, having their diplomats stay in Ramallah and Tel Aviv).
Palestinians, most Arab countries (such as Jordan and Egypt), and the United Nations have all condemned Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. After the announcement, Hezbollah and Hamas threatened to retaliate, violent protests broke out in the Gaza Strip, and angry Palestinians burned photos of Trump.
But are Trump’s statements at all meaningful?
In actuality, as former U.S. envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross points out in his recent Foreign Policy article, the announcement may have no effect whatsoever on the conflict. Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, is already located in Jerusalem, and the world has for a long time unofficially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The complication is that most countries have also accepted East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
With a future two-state solution to the conflict, which is what Palestinians have sought for decades, West Jerusalem would likely still exist as it does today: as the capital of Israel. It would merely mean shifting the eastern part of Jerusalem to Palestinian jurisdiction, allowing Palestinian government buildings and embassies to flourish there. In fact, Trump suggested in his speech that he would not be opposed to a two-state solution if the two parties came to this agreement bilaterally. His national security advisor Michael Anton went even further. When NPR’s Mary-Louise Kelly asked Anton in her December 6th interview, “…does it rule out that the U.S. could recognize Jerusalem as the capital of some future Palestinian state?”, Anton replied simply: “It does not.”
But then in interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley directly contradicted Anton’s statement when she stated clearly about Trump: “He just took Jerusalem off the table.” In actuality, since Palestinians are now denying the U.S. any future role in the peace process, Donald Trump no longer has the authority to “take it off the table.”
Although the Trump administration has said that the move to Jerusalem would take several years, multiple nations have condemned the action for its symbolic significance.
Trump’s unilateral pronouncement has compelled world countries to make explicit their own positions on this extremely complicated issue.
For example, Egypt in response proposed a UN resolution to nullify President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. On December 21st, with an overwhelming majority, the United Nations General Assembly voted 128-9 to approve the nullification of Trump’s action (with 35 countries abstaining, and 21 absent).
Just ahead of the vote, the American ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley backed Trump, tweeting threats to take a tally of any countries that would vote in support of the measure, and to respond punitively. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded to those threats, saying, “Mr. Trump, you cannot buy Turkey’s democratic will with your dollars.”
Three days later, the impoverished Central American country of Guatemala decided to follow the United States and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. That was the extent of global support for Trump’s action.
As seen with the 128 votes approving the resolution, Trump’s declaration has elicited a strong response from more than just Israelis and Palestinians. Other powerful and influential countries such as Japan, Britain, and France — all allies of the United States — have now condemned Trump’s actions, which isolates the U.S. and further complicates foreign relations for all parties.
Israel’s right-leaning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in March 2015 vowed that there would be no Palestinian state as long as he is in office, applauded Trump’s statement and refuses to recognize the UN vote.
Spurred on by the mounting world opposition, Trump and Nikki Haley continued to issue threats. On January 2, Trump threatened to stop U.S. funding to the Palestinians unless they return to the negotiating table without Jerusalem. The Palestinians decried Trump’s use of “blackmail,” and even Israel warned of a humanitarian and security disaster if that were to happen. Despite those warnings, on January 16, Trump cut Palestinian aid in half, threatening the lifeline of millions of Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.
Even within America, the opinions and declared positions regarding both Trump’s announcement and the conflict in general have divided Israeli-Americans and Israeli expatriates.
The most unfortunate and disappointing consequence of Trump’s move, however, may be that the United States has lost its role as peacemaker to the conflict. The Palestinians and the world have until now accepted the U.S. role as diplomat, despite its pro-Israel bias, because it was believed a third-party was necessary for negotiating an enduring peace. That Abbas has now rejected any continued U.S. role may complicate the process. Although it is possible for the two countries to resolve their conflicts bilaterally, the staunch polarization and current nationalist sentiment rising in Israel does not engender confidence that a holistic solution could be possible anytime soon without the involvement of a third-party negotiator.
Because of this, Abbas continues to pursue trilateral negotiations, and is now seeking an alternate third-party negotiator within the European Union or Russia.
It is possible that the crisis within the crisis created by Trump’s move may have opened a door to the circumstances needed for meaningful negotiations. In a negotiation that clearly needs help from third parties, those third-parties must be as objective and unbiased as possible in order to reach a fair agreement and an enduring peace. The U.S. was not unbiased, and Trump’s move has now made that abundantly clear.
What is needed is a truly honest broker — a fair and unbiased country or individual who has shown real leadership, and who values the needs and deep desires of both Israelis and Palestinians.
What if Emmanuel Macron stepped up to the plate? Or possibly Michael Bloomberg, or even Pope Francis. One of those individuals may well yield a very different outcome, and in a surprisingly short period of time.
Whatever they accomplished would surely be more sensitive and more adept than what we’ve just witnessed.