The reaction from the foreign-policy establishment and America’s European and Arab allies is unanimous. All are opposed to President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Moreover, the very real possibility of violence from the Palestinians, and perhaps even bloody riots throughout the Muslim world, in reaction to a statement scheduled to be delivered today has once again brought down a hail of criticism assailing the president’s judgment. But while this may complicate America’s position in the Middle East and further confuse an already muddled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the brickbats aimed at Trump are ignoring the most significant aspect of the controversy.
If Trump acknowledges something that has been a reality for nearly 70 years — Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital since the conclusion of its War of Independence in 1949 — but, as is likely, doesn’t immediately move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv or explicitly recognize Israel’s right to all of Jerusalem, then any resulting Arab or Muslim violence will make explicit something that most of those opposed to the president usually refuse to acknowledge. The anger about a change in U.S. policy won’t stem from its supposed negative impact on peace negotiations but from a desire to destroy the Jewish state.
The timing of Trump’s statement is curious given the fact that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been trying to revive peace negotiations with Saudi help. But continuing America’s historic refusal to recognize Israel’s rights in Jerusalem would have meant continuing to allow U.S. policy to be held hostage by extremists who have no interest in peace on any terms.
While any mention of a shift on Jerusalem is being treated as demonstrating pro-Israel bias and a virtual Trump declaration of war on Middle East peace, the likely details of the statement contradict those assumptions. If Trump fails to refer to Jerusalem as a “united” city, he will actually be preserving the ambiguity in the U.S. position that peace-process advocates claim is necessary to keep the flagging hopes for a two-state solution alive.
The 1947 United Nations partition resolution, which called for the creation of Jewish and Arab states in what was then British Mandate for Palestine, set aside Jerusalem as an international zone. This impractical plan was a dead letter from the outset, since neither the Palestinian Arabs nor the rest of the Arab and Muslim world were prepared to accept the creation of a Jewish state even if it did not include even part of the holy city and was matched by a new Arab nation. But the lack of international sanction for Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem that has served as the pretext for non-recognition of the city’s status as the capital is no bar to a two-state solution. In what must now be conceded as the unlikely prospect that the Palestinian Authority will ever agree to peace with Arab neighborhoods in the city serving as a capital for a second state, what possible reason could anyone have for opposing American recognition that western Jerusalem is Israeli?
The answer is painfully obvious.
The ceasefire that ended the first Arab–Israeli war in 1949 left Jerusalem split, with the western portion controlled by Israel and the rest, including the Old City and the most sacred Jewish shrines, occupied (illegally, as far as every nation in the world other than Britain and Pakistan were concerned) by Jordan. In 1967, the Six-Day War ended with the barriers dividing the city torn down as Israeli forces unified Jerusalem. The Jewish state soon annexed the portions that Jordan had occupied, but the international community still did not recognize Israel’s hold on the city and the continued presence of its government.
The conceit of a two-state solution is that both Israel and the putative Palestine would have their capital in Jerusalem. How the city would be repartitioned without reverting to its pre-1967 status, in which two armed enemies were separated only by ugly walls and a no man’s land, has never been made clear. Moreover, despite the constant criticism of Israel’s desire to keep the capital united — the only time in history that the holy places of the three monotheistic religions have been open to all has been during the last 50 years of Israeli sovereignty — or its building of new Jewish neighborhoods there or settlements elsewhere in the West Bank, the main reason why a Palestinian state has not been created is the Palestinians’ refusal to accept such a solution. Israel offered the Palestinians independence in a state that included a share of Jerusalem in 2000, 2001, and 2008 but was turned down each time (first by Yasir Arafat and then by his successor Mahmoud Abbas).
That’s why Trump giving U.S. recognition to western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is not even a theoretical bar to a two-state solution. Yet Palestinians consider even that minimal step, without moving the U.S. embassy to the place where Israel’s government actually sits, a flagrant insult to their national pride — and many of their supporters feel the same way. If their anger is expressed in riots, which might bring to mind the reaction to 2005 publication of satirical cartoons in a Danish newspaper, then Trump will be accused of fomenting violence.
But while all of Trump’s predecessors considered this threat reason enough to avoid recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — which entailed signing repeated waivers to a 1995 law that mandated moving the U.S. embassy there — what this does is essentially allow terrorists to dictate U.S. policy on a matter that wouldn’t preclude peace.
What the foreign-policy establishment — including many State Department veterans responsible for decades of failure in the Middle East — also fails to see is that allowing that current situation to continue is itself a barrier to peace. As long as the Palestinians and their foreign enablers are allowed to hold on to the illusion that their century-old war on Zionism will eventually succeed, the sea change in their political culture that might enable peace will never happen. While there is little chance that Trump’s attempt to jolt them into reality will succeed, such a change is a prerequisite for successful negotiations, not a barrier to them.
It is wrong to blame Trump for any violence or subsequent lack of progress toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
That said, it should also be conceded that Trump’s entirely defensible stand on Jerusalem is at odds with the strategy his son-in-law is pursuing toward Middle East peace. Kushner’s “outside-in” approach, which rests on the assumption that the Saudis can bribe or bully an unwilling Palestinian Authority and its Hamas rivals into peace, is just as unlikely to succeed as any other plan. It’s hard to imagine the Saudis’ willingly allowing themselves to be construed as backing Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem even if Riyadh views the Jewish state as an ally against Iran and has little real sympathy for the addition of another unstable Arab nation to the region. That illustrates the uncoordinated and often confused attitude of a Trump administration that similarly can’t decide between its justified hostility toward Iran and its desire for détente with Russia.
But no matter what happens after Trump’s Jerusalem statement, it is wrong to blame him for any violence or subsequent lack of progress toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The continued Palestinian refusal to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state or Jewish ties to Jerusalem that is made manifest by their threats of a new intifada over a largely meaningless gesture by Trump remains the real problem. Trump may not be advancing a peace process that is already doomed, but he may give those willing to look clearly at the situation another demonstration of Palestinian intransigence.