On December 6, President Donald J. Trump did something no US president had done before him: he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel. In doing so, he not only reversed long-standing US policy on this all-important core issue, but he also sent shockwaves throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Reversing Long-standing US Policy
US policy toward Jerusalem since the US vote in support of the 1947 United Nations partition plan had backed a separate status for the city. This held true for many decades. After the start of the peace process era, the US position on Jerusalem maintained the principle of separation while noting that the final status of Jerusalem was subject to the outcome of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
For years, despite consistent US support for Israel, American policies regarding Jerusalem and settlements acted as data points in the argument that the United States could play a mediator’s role. In fact, the American position on Jerusalem served as part of the reason why the peace process, as we know it, was able to begin. As a component of the prelude to the Madrid Conference in 1991, American letters of assurances to the Palestinians included a guarantee that the United States would not take any position on Jerusalem nor would any Palestinian claims to Jerusalem be diminished by engaging in these talks. The American guarantee was central because the Israeli delegation had refused to agree to the meetings if any members of the Palestinian delegation were from Jerusalem. Accepting this Israeli position was seen by Palestinians as tantamount to accepting Israeli claims on Jerusalem as well as identifying who can and should speak for it or about it. For this reason, US guarantees on this issue in particular were central to ensuring Palestinian engagement in the process. Indeed, American neutrality on Jerusalem is at the very foundation of the entire Oslo peace process era. Now that this guarantee has gone out the window and the US position on settlements has become opaque under the Trump Administration, there is not even a fig leaf to hold up to cover a shameful peace process. It is also practically impossible to see how any Palestinian leader can re-engage with Washington.
What Exactly is the New US Position?
The president recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and while that had never been done before, the new position created a new set of questions. Compounding this was the statement from the State Department after the decision that its consular practices regarding Jerusalem would not change. “Jerusalem, Israel,” for example, would not appear on US passports or other consular documents. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, added to the confusion when she elaborated in a media interview that, “We did not talk about boundaries or borders for a reason. And that’s because whatever is East Jerusalem or any other part, that’s between the Palestinians and the Israelis. That’s not for the Americans to decide. The Americans just said, we want our embassy in the capital. And that capital in Jerusalem.” She would also say that by making the declaration, President Trump “just took Jerusalem off the table. He just took it off the table. So, now they get to come together. They get to decide what the borders will look like. They get to decide the boundaries. And they get to talk about how they want to see Jerusalem going forward.”
How can we decipher the meaning of this? President Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but the United States cannot say where Jerusalem begins and ends because the division of Jerusalem is for the parties to address at the negotiating table—even though the president now has taken the issue off the table. That, of course, does not make any sense; but it is the message emanating from Washington this week. The question is what message will the parties involved actually take from this decision.
What Israelis Will Hear
Israel, along with Russia, are the only two countries where attitudes toward the US president have become more positive since the transition from President Obama to President Trump. This move will only make him more friends there, particularly with the Israeli right. For Israelis, hearing this declaration from an American president is a validation of their political claims, historical narrative, and strategy vis-à-vis the Palestinians. The right will argue that this only proves they were correct by not conceding anything, and that the strategy of not conceding while laying claim to more Palestinian land will ultimately be vindicated as well.
The president, in his declaration, argued that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a recognition of a reality on the ground. The problem with this is that only one side, Israel, is capable of creating realities on the ground because it is able to impose its will on the weaker Palestinians.
It is instructive here to recall the Clinton parameters from the Camp David peace talks in 2000. The American position on a division of Jerusalem was based on the principle of whatever was Jewish would remain Jewish and whatever was Arab would become Palestinian. That meant that the American position was not based on the green line, which ran through the city; rather, it was adjusted to present-day “realities.” This so-called recognition of reality emboldens Israel to merely expand those realities on the ground in occupied Jerusalem with the understanding that, in the final arrangement, the American position would reflect them. The Clinton parameters were not official US policy but merely a proposal for a plan—if taken in its entirety and agreed to by the parties—that could serve as a framework for an agreement. US policy on Jerusalem did not change, but a message was sent to the Israelis about how the Americans saw things working out, and this conditioned Israeli behavior. The same can be expected of this announcement by Trump which, unlike the parameters, does in fact change US policy and therefore will send a much stronger version of the same message.
What the Palestinians Will Hear
For Palestinians, what they are hearing is a White House that is adopting an Israeli narrative in unprecedented ways. This message, which touches on the very sensitive and emotional issue of Jerusalem in the Palestinian cause, will surely drown out any nuance attempted by Washington in the aftermath of the Trump declaration.
But let us assume for a moment that the nuance is indeed part of the policy and that the actual territorial boundaries of Jerusalem are up for negotiation. What guarantee do the Palestinians have that when the Israelis refuse to divide the city during future negotiations, the Americans would step in with leverage—after giving recognition of Jerusalem away now?
Most importantly, what Palestinians will hear is the failure of their leadership to advance their cause. Ahead of the Trump declaration, PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was facing a public in the West Bank and Gaza where 67 percent wanted him to resign. The strategy of engaging with Washington under the premise that it could deliver Israeli concessions in some remotely even-handed way was already something viewed with deep skepticism among Palestinians. Despite this and Trump’s nomination of a right-wing settlement supporter to be his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and even though Trump made campaign promises to move the embassy to Jerusalem, Abbas still met with him in May of this year and declared, “Now, Mr. President, with you we have hope.” The biggest loser in all of this is certainly Abbas. He and his political program have now been exposed as hopeless, even to those who still had any shred of hope in Trump’s Middle East deal making. One has to wonder how Washington can expect to gain the trust of a Palestinian leader ever again.
What Next for Israel/Palestine, the Middle East, and US Engagement?
The most immediate concern should be for Palestinians living in Jerusalem, as Israeli politicians who have sought to advance policies aimed at re-engineering the demographics of the city will now be emboldened by the Trump declaration proclaiming Jerusalem the capital of Israel. The Israelis have already announced significant settlement expansion. “Following President Trump’s historic declaration,” Israel’s housing minister stated as he announced thousands of new settlement units in occupied territory, “I intend to advance and strengthen building in Jerusalem.”
Legislation in the Israeli Knesset regarding Jerusalem may also pick up steam. This includes bills that would redraw the municipal boundaries to exclude certain Arab neighborhoods as well as other legislation that would bring massive Israeli settlements into the municipality.
Regionally, the Jerusalem decision by President Trump has brought together many countries to speak in one voice for the first time in years. The Arab League, along with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which includes 57 Arab and Muslim states and was founded because of Jerusalem, collectively condemned the decision; and on December 13, the OIC formally declared East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital. Trump’s declaration also brought Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Iran, and Qatar all into line behind one issue. To be sure, Trump has found a way to bring together Arab and Muslim states; but instead of bringing them together to embrace Israel and oppose Iran, he has brought all Arab and Muslim states, including Iran, together to oppose him and Israel. For anyone paying attention, the writing had been on the wall for some time and the warning signs were clear. Earlier this year, when Israel moved to put metal detectors up at the entrance of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, protests erupted not only in Jerusalem but in many parts of the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Importantly however, condemnation of Washington’s decision on Jerusalem is not only coming from Arab and Muslim states but basically from everywhere else in the world. Members of the United Nations Security Council rejected the United States’ position in an emergency session on the topic on December 8. Rarely is so much unison in condemnation of a Security Council member that prevalent. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador, told all of her UN counterparts that none of them are in a position to judge the United States, a line of argumentation most often heard in the chamber from the Russians.
But Washington’s Western European allies strongly distanced themselves as well. This might be one of the most interesting implications. The Europeans have grown tired of a peace process they are asked to finance but over which they have little say regarding the outcome, as the United States shields Israel while it colonizes what remains of Palestine. Washington has been able, with some success, to keep European objections quiet, but this might be the last straw. The European Union, the United Nations, the Russians, and the United States, which make up the Middle East quartet, have understood the American role as essential because of Washington’s relationship with Israel. But if the United States has abandoned even the pretense of mediation, this might allow for the Europeans and others to play more independent roles in relation to the Israeli/Palestinian issue.
This all comes as the UN Human Rights Council is set to release a report in Spring 2018 on corporations that profit illegally from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. There will certainly be a diplomatic blitz by Israel and Washington to get allies to prevent the report’s advancement. They will argue that it is detrimental to a peace process, which is nonexistent; but especially after this Jerusalem decision, they might find fewer sympathetic ears to this message than ever before.
For Palestinians, this Trump declaration may provide opportunities for diplomatic achievements with states that are troubled with the US role. How exactly they will seize this moment, if at all, is unclear at this time. What is undeniably clear is that the Trump declaration is a break from the past and the Oslo era has finally drawn to a close.