Although President Donald Trump’s declaration on Wednesday that the United States officially recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was likely motivated more by a desire to keep a campaign promise and score some political points than by any coherent strategy, that doesn’t mean there’s no strategy to it. This was a policy choice, and it will have consequences, including some the administration may not have foreseen and may not be prepared to handle.
A senior White House official admitted to CNN on Thursday that “we’re prepared for derailment” of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process due to Trump’s announcement — “temporary, I hope. Pretty sure it will be temporary.” Having Trump fulfill his campaign promise now, while peace talks are stalled anyway, was seen as less disruptive than doing so after talks resumed, this official explained. (They also said the president’s Middle East peace team hadn’t spoken to Palestinian officials since the announcement.)
“We know there will be some short term pain, but think it will help in the long run,” another anonymous source in the White House told CNN. On the other hand, two other officials in the administration said helping advance the peace process was not the goal. These anonymous mixed messages suggest that there may have been some dissent within the administration as to whether to take this step. Officials (anonymous, again) told the New York Times that the move would “remove ambiguity” from the U.S. position on Israel’s right to have its capital in Jerusalem, as though that position were somehow ambiguous before.
The idea certainly is to remove ambiguity, but not in the way these officials mean. Let’s not forget that Kushner, who is leading the president’s so-called peace team, is a family friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has openly dreamed of killing the peace process started at Oslo in 1993 since his first prime ministry in the late 90s. Kushner also spent nine years running a foundation that funded West Bank settlement projects, which he reportedly failed to disclose in his filings with the Office of Government Ethics. He’s also close with the rising leadership of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who don’t much care for Israel but agree with Netanyahu that Iran is a much bigger threat to their security and prosperity than his country is.
In other words, the person in charge of our Middle East policy has an agenda of his own, as do the people pulling his strings, and these agendas appear to be driven more by regional interests than those of the U.S. (perhaps this is what Trump means by not interfering in the affairs of other countries). This is also not entirely about Palestine and Israel: Wednesday’s move is mostly about Iran, Middle East expert Marc Lynch believes — specifically, squaring the circle of how to form an Israeli-Arab alliance against it without resolving the Palestinian issue first.
As Trump put it in his announcement, his decision simply recognizes reality and acknowledges that our longstanding approach to the peace process so far has failed. He’s not wrong about that: The peace process has been at a virtual standstill for over a decade by now, some would say even longer. However, what Trump is doing may not turn things around.
Wednesday’s message, as the Palestinian leadership heard it, was that the U.S. would no longer pretend to be a neutral arbiter in the Middle East and would instead help Israel in its effort to legalize the facts it has created on the ground over the past 50 years. Trump’s innovative solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is ostensibly to declare that Israel has won and force its version of a final settlement on the Palestinians. This is what settlement evangelists like Kushner and our ambassador to Israel David Friedman want. This is what Netanyahu and the Israeli right have been arguing for all these years that they’ve been rejecting a two-state solution. It’s also consistent with Trump’s overall approach to diplomacy: We’re America, and we say what’s what. Take it or take it.
To a right-wing Zionist, this is about the most favorable position a U.S. president can take. Trump does not appear to have extracted any concessions from Israel in return for Wednesday’s declaration, indicating that he is prejudicing future negotiations over the status of Jerusalem as a matter of principle, not as part of some elaborate deal.
Kushner and Jason D. Greenblatt, the president’s special envoy, both reportedly backed the move. If Trump’s peace team has a strategy here, it is probably that by having the U.S. effectively declare the Jerusalem question resolved, it can cajole Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas into negotiating on Israel’s terms by showing him how little he has left to lose. Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted that talks proceed “without preconditions” — i.e., without holding Israel to anything it has agreed to in previous rounds of negotiations, and without any guarantees to Abbas about the final status of Jerusalem, the Israeli settlements, or the right of return of Palestinian refugees. Some of these issues are non-negotiable for the Palestinian Authority, and therein lies the fundamental impasse.
Perhaps, then, the idea is to apply Trump’s patented hostile negotiation techniques on the Palestinians and pressure them into a very bad deal in which they accept Israel’s encroachment into East Jerusalem and the best parts of the West Bank as faits accomplis, as in the rumored (and heavily denied) peace plan Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman allegedly presented Abbas last month. If this gambit works perfectly, it will result in a deeply unjust and possibly unsustainable solution to the conflict. If it fails, it carries enormous risks.
So far, Trump’s decision has been met with predictable rage in Palestine and throughout the Arab world. Palestinians are protesting in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank by the thousands, while Hamas has called for an intifada (uprising) and fired rockets from Gaza to which Israel has replied with its usual airstrikes. Protests have also taken place in other Arab and Muslim countries. For the gesture to be worth all this trouble, these protests will need to die down quickly and not actually spiral into a new intifada or destabilize any of the Arab states, and the P.A. must play along as well.
Lynch doubts the expressions of anger in the street will be enough to force Arab leaders to do anything more than bluster at Israel. He thinks the administration is right to assume that our allies in the region will eventually fall back in line, “barring the emergence of serious, sustained Palestinian mobilization.” The cynical hope reflected in this move is that there is not enough fire left in the Palestinian independence movement to make much of a difference.
The chances of anything serious or sustained emerging may indeed be slim, but something widespread, chaotic, and unpredictable is entirely possible. When Arab leaders warn that moves like this are destabilizing and lead to regional violence, they’re not just blowing smoke. The U.S. and Israel have consistently underestimated how much Jerusalem means to Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims, and thus how inflammatory it is to disregard their interests there. This isn’t an issue of extremists vs. the rest, either: The Palestinian cause is tremendously popular throughout the Middle East, while the occupation of Jerusalem by Israel is very much not.
Betting against the Middle East descending into a mess over perhaps the most sensitive diplomatic issue in world history looks like a bad gamble on its face. How many times have we gone in there thinking we couldn’t possibly make things any worse, and how many times have we been wrong?