In Jerusalem, Palestinians watch Donald Trump’s announcement that the American government will recognize the city as Israel’s capital, and will relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv. Photograph by Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty
President Trump threw a diplomatic bomb into the Middle East peace process with his twin decisions to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv. The decision broke with seven decades of U.S. policy by both Republican and Democratic Administrations. It defied every ally, save Israel, and disregarded a last-ditch global campaign that included key figures from the world’s three monotheistic religions—Pope Francis, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and American Jewish groups. Trump’s decision fulfilled a campaign promise, but it threatened to unravel one of his top foreign-policy pledges: to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, who have already called for “three days of rage” in response.
In a brief statement read off teleprompters at the White House, Trump called his decision a “new approach to the conflict” and a long-overdue and “necessary step” to enhance the peace process. “Today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do. It’s something that has to be done,” he said.
For the first time, the President expressed support for a two-state solution—if the two sides ultimately embrace that formula as the solution. This was not a concession, however, given that his Republican and Democratic predecessors endorsed the two-state concept as well. Trump also stipulated that his decision was not intended to influence the final boundaries or borders of either state. Vice-President Mike Pence will travel to the region soon to reinforce the U.S. commitments, Trump said.
“There will of course be disagreement and dissent regarding this announcement,” Trump said. “But we are confident that, ultimately, as we work through these disagreements, we will arrive at a place of greater understanding and coöperation.” He added, “We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians.”
The curious and almost contradictory aspect of Trump’s announcement was the timing, particularly since the move may not happen until a new Embassy is found or built, which could take as long as three or four years, U.S. officials say. In his statement, Trump said only that the current approach to the peace process had failed to work and a change was needed.
The status of Jerusalem—sacred to all three Abrahamic faiths—has long been one of the “final status” issues to be determined as part of the peace process. One of the implicit rewards for a peace accord was moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to West Jerusalem—and possibly opening a separate U.S. Embassy to a new state of Palestine, in an eastern part of the city. The U.S. Embassy was effectively a valuable diplomatic chit in the most complicated and drawn-out peace negotiations since the Second World War. The President has now played that card in reverse order, and for nothing tangible in return. Indeed, the move cost his Administration credibility even before it was made.
The Palestinian Prime Minister, Rami Hamdallah, said that the announcement “destroys the peace process,” a warning echoed by many top Palestinians who embrace peace negotiations and have engaged with Israelis for more than a quarter century, since the 1993 Oslo Accord.
“In one blow, President Trump has destroyed not only the chances of any peace but the stability and security of the region as a whole,” Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator, said on CNN, on Wednesday. “He has undermined his closest allies in the Arab world. He has given all extremists and nuts all over the world who are ready to commit acts of violence a perfect excuse because he has provoked spiritual sentiments and religious feelings to the point where we don’t know how far the ramifications will go.”
Khalil Shikaki was one of the first Palestinians to work with Israeli counterparts in studying the feasibility of peace—by conducting pre-accord public-opinion polls—in the early nineteen-nineties. He launched one of the first independent polling-research groups in the Arab world—the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, in Ramallah—and has also lectured extensively to American Jewish Groups. Since 2005, he has also been a senior fellow at Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies.
“If it’s done in isolation of whatever efforts he’s trying on peace, then it’s nonsensical,” Shikaki told me. “It would basically kill any chance that his efforts would be seen as credible.” In his poll of Palestinian public opinion, in September, some three quarters of Palestinians already said that the Trump Administration was not serious about achieving peace. The immediate danger, Shikaki warned, is the breakdown of pivotal (and U.S.-supported) coördination between the Palestinian and Israeli security forces, which are instrumental in preventing individual acts of violence from escalating into another intifada, or uprising. “Israeli-Palestinian coöperation has made stability possible,” he told me. “I can’t see it continuing in an environment where it looks like conditions on the peace process or political front are no longer there.”
Regionally, the Jerusalem decision “will unify moderates and extremists,” Shikaki predicted. Any effort to build an Arab coalition to side with the United States on major policy issues across the region is now jeopardized. Other Arab leaders “will see no point of working with President Trump and making themselves vulnerable to criticism,” he told me.
Not surprisingly, the Islamic world reacted angrily to Trump’s decision. Turkey unveiled plans for a summit of leaders of Muslim countries to coördinate their response. The “whole world is against” Trump’s decision, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said. After a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah, on Wednesday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took a crack at Trump’s domestic motivation for the move—and his political ego. “No one person’s personal ambitions should be allowed to alter the fates of billions of people. Any such move would only embolden terrorist organizations,” he said. Turkey has been one of the few predominantly Muslim nations to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, although the relationship has been rocky.
The wider world was alarmed as well. Both Russia and China expressed concern about new tensions in a region already ravaged by four wars, in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. At the United Nations, Secretary General António Guterres said that Jerusalem’s status had to be determined by the Israelis and Palestinians. He warned about taking “unilateral measures” undermining international peace efforts, although he did not mention President Trump by name. “In this moment of great anxiety, I want to make it clear: there is no alternative to the two-state solution,” Guterres said. “There is no Plan B.” Britain’s Foreign Secretary called on the United States to quickly follow the move by outlining its plan for peace. So far, the negotiations have been conducted behind closed doors by the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Trump’s decision comes just months after he overconfidently assessed his ability to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians. “It is something that I think is frankly, maybe, not as difficult as people have thought over the years,” he said, during a visit by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, in May.
The State Department recognized and reacted quickly to the dangers of the President’s decision. On Wednesday, it banned American diplomats and their families “until further notice” from travelling to Jerusalem’s Old City or the West Bank, including Bethlehem and Jericho, except for “essential business.” It also warned all U.S. citizens to “avoid areas where crowds have gathered and where there is increased police and/or military presence.” And, in a cable to all diplomatic missions, the State Department ordered diplomats stationed anywhere to defer all nonessential travel to Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank until December 20th, according to Reuters. Risk-management firms issued dispatches warning about the dangers of anti-American activity across the Islamic world, in countries as far away as Indonesia. Several European countries also issued security warnings to their citizens in the Middle East.
Current and former U.S. officials involved in the peace process were also aghast at Trump’s announcement. “How does this serve our national interests?” Aaron David Miller, who worked on the peace process under six Secretaries of State, and who is now the director of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center, told me.
“One statement is going to undercut everything they want to do. It will take us out of the game,” Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and to Egypt and now a professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, told me. Speculating on the rationale behind Trump’s decision, he continued, “You want to shoot yourself in the foot—because it’s good for your base—but you’ve got to understand what you’re doing.”
Implementing Trump’s policy could be a long way off. The U.S. does currently have a U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which has been the liaison to the Palestinian Authority—and which does not come under the authority of the U.S. Embassy in Israel. One option explored in the past was whether it could be converted into an Embassy and a new facility could be found for a consulate to deal with Palestinians.
“We are just at the beginning of a process of assessing requirements for an Embassy, which as you know are detailed and time consuming anywhere in the world,” a senior State Department official, told me in an e-mail. “We will of course look at the properties we currently own/long-term lease, but have in no way come to any judgment as to suitability from a security/safety/fit for purpose standpoint.”
In Jerusalem, the Israeli government reacted by illuminating the Old City’s historic walls with red, white, and blue lights in tribute to the U.S. decision. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heralded Trump’s announcement as an “important step,” and pledged to “continue to work with the President and his team to make that dream of peace come true.” Given the reaction everywhere else, however, the prospects of peace may be further off than they were ten months ago when Trump entered the White House.