President Trump has informed Middle East leaders that he plans to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in a statement tomorrow, a provocative move that risks sparking a violent backlash and scuttling the Mideast peace process—such as it is—for the foreseeable future.
According to the New York Times, Trump told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah of his decision, just after the latest deadline on deciding whether or not to keep the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. (Thanks to a U.S. law passed in 1995, the president has to sign a waiver every six month keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv for security reasons.) While Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, the U.S. has avoided recognizing it until the permanent status of the city—the eastern portion of which was captured by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967—is settled through negotiation.
U.S. officials say Trump will again sign the waiver, for logistical reasons, but will also announce his intention to move the embassy as soon as possible. As Uri Friedman writes, this seems to be another example of Trump conducting foreign policy by “symbolic half-measures.” As with the Iran nuclear deal and the diplomatic opening to Cuba, he’s doing enough that he can say he’s reversing a policy he opposed on the campaign trail, while not actually changing much in reality.
But in this case, the entire issue is one of symbolism, and it’s not clear that Trump’s half-measure will be any less damaging than a whole-hearted one. Palestinian leaders have called for “three days of rage” across the West Bank in response to Trump’s decision. The U.S. consulate—possibly soon to be embassy—in Jerusalem, has issued a warning to U.S. citizens and is barring non-official travel by U.S.
government personnel to the West Bank until further notice.
Trump’s supporters will no doubt say that the threat of violence shouldn’t deter a stance on principle. But the move entails so much risk for so little potential reward that it’s hard to fathom. For the past year, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been working to reach what Trump calls the “ultimate deal” for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Palestinian officials say the deal will “die on the rocks of Jerusalem” if the president goes forward. Even if the chances of that deal were slim—and they were—why undercut an ambitious initiative less than one year in?
Yes, pro-Israel evangelical Christian groups in the U.S. and influential pro-Israel donor Sheldon Adelson have been pushing Trump to uphold his campaign promise to move the embassy, but Trump is also already widely perceived as favoring Israel. It seems very unlikely he would have lost any support over the Jerusalem issue—George W. Bush reneged on his campaign promise to move the embassy and was reelected.
According to the Times, Trump told Abbas and Abdullah that recognizing Jerusalem “could actually hasten the peace process by removing a thorny political issue that recurs every six months.” This makes no sense. But perhaps it removes a thorny issue for Trump himself. Like the Iran deal, which Trump was required to certify every 90 days, reportedly making him livid at his advisors, he seems annoyed that he has to repeatedly take action to preserve a policy that he has publicly said he opposes. We’re about to find out just how much damage his annoyance will cause.