As expected, President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital unleashed fury among Palestinians and others in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and received condemnation from the international community. So, what has been gained?
Most Israelis see the U.S. decision as pure victory. It confirms their reality: Jerusalem always has been the capital of their state and the spiritual capital of the Jewish people. It undermines Palestinian aspirations for East Jerusalem as the capital of their dreamed-of state. Although Trump did not declare Jerusalem to be Israel’s undivided capital and, although he said he wasn’t taking a position on final borders, his statement was sufficiently vague and his declaration a sufficient departure from previous U.S. diplomacy, for it to be read as unqualified support for total Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. That’s certainly how both sides read it: as Trump blowing a raspberry to Palestinian claims.
A few pundits have speculated that by giving the Netanyahu regime this gift, Trump has opened the door for a new U.S. peace plan. It will now be easier to ask for some concessions from the Israeli side. Or, alternatively, now the Palestinians will realize they must reduce their demands and accept whatever is on offer. The ultimate deal maker has put them on notice.
This presumes Trump does have a peace plan up his sleeve. Highly unlikely. He has given no indication he has a coherent grasp of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or a vision for its resolution. In his Jerusalem announcement, he said he will favour a two-state solution if that’s what both sides want. Some have pounced on this comment as a sign he’s finally seen the light on the need for two states. But Trump’s words, at best, suggest only tepid interest in the two-state solution. And the U.S. must do much more. For the U.S. to play a meaningful mediating role in the conflict, it must do some serious persuading with the recalcitrant parties. If the two sides wanted the same thing, they would have come to their own agreement long ago. However you parse the Trump announcement on Jerusalem, it comes down to this: a pat on the back for Netanyahu, a kick in the backside for Abbas, and a lot of empty words in between.
Trump’s action has not, and almost certainly will not, lead to concessions from the Palestinians. Quite the opposite. Their leaders have declared that the U.S. can no longer be considered an honest broker. They have refused to meet with Vice-President Pence. Their one-time chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, has declared “the two-state solution is over.” They are seeking to stir up Muslim and Christian fervour on the emotional issue of Jerusalem. And, although the violence in the streets has subsided, the anger remains deep and could have lasting consequences: more diplomatic isolation for Israel, more antisemitic and anti-American terrorism, more hardening of hearts and minds.
Meanwhile, the Netanyahu government has received the green light to continue cementing the Jewish hold on the city: ringing Jerusalem with Jewish settlements, facilitating Jewish housing in Arab neighbourhoods and launching gerrymandering initiatives that would detach a large portion of Jerusalem’s Arabs from the city and thus prevent them from ever having influence in municipal elections (should they ever try to exercise this right). Moreover, the government and the settler movement will be emboldened to continue their creeping annexation of the rest of the West Bank.
The entire international community, including the U.S. until recently, agreed that the status of Jerusalem must be decided in a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Various proposals have been put forward for Jerusalem as a dual capital, with possible international jurisdiction over certain areas. It would take the utmost diplomacy and a political sea change for such plans to be accepted, especially by Israel. It would be equally difficult to persuade the Palestinians to relinquish their claims. Everyone knows that Jerusalem is among the thorniest of the issues between the two sides. But to close the door on the possibility of a compromise on Jerusalem is to sanction a one-state Greater Israel perpetually ruling over a disenfranchised Palestinian population.
The short-sighted, self-serving Trump announcement goes against Israel’s long-term interests because of its negative impact on the two-state solution. If the door closes on such a solution, Israel will lose the right to call itself a democracy, the erosion of its security from within will worsen, the conflict will grind on without end. Those who care about Israel should be concerned.