What recognizing Jerusalem means for US role as Mideast mediator

Israelis hailed, and Palestinians and other Arabs denounced, President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Delivering on one campaign promise may have come at the expense of another.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
With an Israeli flag flying in the foreground and western Jerusalem in the background, the Old City compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount is seen.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump pledged – to the roaring approval of evangelical Christians and some pro-Israel donors – to buck longstanding policy and quickly move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem if he became president.

He also asserted that, as the consummate deal artist, he would succeed where other US presidents had failed – in crafting the “ultimate deal” to end the Middle East conflict through a peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians.

President Trump made partial good on the embassy pledge with his announcement Wednesday recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and directing the State Department to begin the process of moving America’s diplomatic headquarters there.

But at the same time, he may have put further off – if not scuttled altogether – prospects for the “ultimate deal” that would finally resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

By recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital rather than leaving the city’s status to be decided as part of a final-status settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, Mr. Trump could be plunging a dagger in Palestinian dreams of establishing disputed East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

In a brief White House statement, Trump said it was time for “fresh thinking” and to “reject the same failed approaches” in the long US effort to bring a lasting peace to the Middle East. The president said his actions should not be construed as a position on the “final status” and boundaries of Jerusalem or a departure from the US effort “to facilitate a lasting peace agreement.”

But the actions were viewed in sharply differing ways in the region and around the world.

Trump’s decision was hailed by Israeli leaders, who said there would be national celebrations marking the momentous day. But Palestinian leaders declared “three days of rage” to express their rejection of the move, while Arab and European leaders lined up in opposition to the unilateral US action that runs contrary to international diplomatic efforts to reach a peace accord.

Muslim and Arab leaders, including Jordan’s King Abdullah, warned of a damaging backlash, while Saudi Arabia, which has coordinated closely with the White House on a new regional peace push, warned that the step would “provoke the sentiments of Muslims throughout the world in light of the great importance and the pivotal status of Jerusalem.”

Indeed Trump, who relishes the image of being a “disruptor,” is bucking decades of US policy in a manner that many diplomats, analysts – and key US allies – say could work against other US priorities in the Middle East. Those include defeating Islamist extremism and Muslim radicalization, and countering an anti-American Iran’s rising influence across the region.

“This is not the first time that Trump has had two objectives and taken action that put those objectives in tension,” says Bruce Jentleson, a former State Department Middle East adviser who is now a foreign policy scholar at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “Recognizing Jerusalem [as Israel’s capital] follows an intensified pattern lately of appealing to what [Trump] sees as his base,” he says, “but it is incredibly counterproductive in terms of these other objectives he claims.”

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For the White House, the president’s decision was the United States finally acknowledging what for all practical purposes has been true since shortly after Israel was created in 1948 – that Jerusalem is the functioning capital, housing the three governing branches and most ministries and agencies.

Trump’s decision “is recognition of reality – the historic reality and modern reality – that Jerusalem is and has been the seat of Israel’s government” since the Jewish state was formed, says a senior White House aide. The president remains committed to “achieving a lasting peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians,” the official adds, while recognizing that the conflict “will not be solved by ignoring the simple truth that Jerusalem … is the capital.”

White House officials insist that Trump is acting on the US public’s will as expressed through Congress. But even though Congress passed a law in 1995 calling for the US Embassy to move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, every president since then has routinely signed a national-security waiver every six months putting off the move in recognition of Jerusalem’s status as an issue to be decided only as part of a final peace accord.

Yet even some analysts who support the principle of an embassy move say the decision ignores another “reality,” that of the Middle East.

“In a logical world, it wouldn’t be a big deal to move the embassy, particularly if it moves to West Jerusalem,” says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “In a logical world, this wouldn’t have to be viewed as a zero-sum decision,” he says. “However, this is the Middle East.”

The president is trying to “mitigate the risks of his decision by making it clear this does not prejudge the outcome of a final settlement” and does not “alter the status of the Jerusalem holy sites administered by Jordan,” Dr. Phillips says. But he adds that the holy city is “so laden with symbolic importance that there is likely to be significant blowback from moving the embassy.”

Among other things, Phillips says he fully expects Iran to jump on the US action as a means of firing up anti-American sentiments in the region. “This hands Iran a useful stick for hitting the US and moderate Arab states that Iran deems to be insufficiently hostile toward Israel.”

Shift in US role

Yet if the White House is dispensing with one fiction with the Jerusalem action, for Palestinians, Arabs, and many Muslims, Wednesday may be remembered as the day another international fiction was laid to rest.

Indeed for some regional analysts, Trump’s move strikes a blow to the role the US has sought to play for at least five decades as the neutral power and “honest broker” in efforts to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a diplomatic settlement.

“The reality is that America has not really been an enabler of peace for a long time because it has so consistently put its thumb on the scale of one party,” says Daniel Levy, president of the US/Middle East Project, a nonpartisan think tank promoting an equitable Middle East peace accord. “If you’re a Palestinian trying to cling to the notion of an American-led peace process that delivers statehood, this move shrinks further the already very small ice cap you’ve been standing on.”

Even a normally cautious Saudi Arabia appeared to acknowledge the shift in Washington’s “honest broker” status, stating the Jerusalem action would “constitute a fundamental change and an unwarranted shift in the United States’ impartial position at a time when the world looks to the United States of America to work on achieving the desired progress in the peace process.”

Mr. Levy says that if any good is to come from Trump’s action, it may be in clarifying the US role and prompting the Palestinians to put their focus and hopes elsewhere.

“I think there is an ‘elsewhere’ for the Palestinians, and that is to turn to themselves first and end their internal divisions,” he says. “At that point they would be in a position to cajole a wide range of international leaders to stand more firmly with them.”

Some regional analysts see Trump acting to “shock” the seemingly interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict with some provocative moves ahead of an anticipated White House peace push early next year. But not everyone sees the provocative approach leading toward peace.

“In a complex and multi-layered conflict like this, I don’t see how ‘Let’s be disruptive!’ makes a lot of sense if your goal really is to fairly resolve the differences between these two parties,” says Dr. Jentleson at Duke. “I’m also not convinced they really want a peace deal, because if they were serious about it, they would not be leaving this to a real estate lawyer and a son-in-law,” he adds, referring to special envoy Jason Greenblatt and White House counselor Jared Kushner.

What worries others is that Trump’s experiment in Middle East disruption could end up costing the US for years to come.

“Violence very well could break out tomorrow over this,” Levy says, “but I think the more critical measure by which to judge this will be the long-term national security repercussions. This is not just another misguided settlement expansion. This time it’s Jerusalem,” he adds, “so you just don’t know when and for how long this might blow back against you.”

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