The Selfish Motive Behind Trump’s Jerusalem Decision

He has imperiled a chance at peace, and endangered lives, for a very dumb reason.

US President Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a statement on Jerusalem from the White House in Washington on Wednesday.

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

President Trump’s announcement Wednesday that he will recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital reflects two of the worst aspects of this administration’s policymaking: the president’s selfish focus on his domestic politics and an incompetence that only made things worse.

Trump’s decision was all about placating his base. There is no other strategic rationale for taking this step now, which is why the president’s advisers have struggled in background briefings to explain how it is in the United States’ security interest. And even the domestic politics for Trump are not very compelling: Sure, he promised to move the embassy during the campaign, but this was not a central tenet of his platform.

Prioritizing this minor point on his agenda could have grave repercussions for so many others. For Palestinian President Abbas, the consequences are profound. The final status of Jerusalem is perhaps the most sensitive issue in Palestinian politics. Palestinians insist that any two-state agreement must have East Jerusalem as their capital, and they view President Trump’s declaration as biasing that outcome. The president tried to hedge by stating that the final status of Jerusalem is still up for negotiation. But the reality is that his statement gives the Israelis a huge political victory and gives the Palestinians nothing.

Some of our most important Arab partners, whose advice Trump chose to disregard, now have significant problems on their hands. This is especially true of Jordan, a reliable partner of the United States: The Jordanian population is 70 percent Palestinian, and this step likely could cause instability.

Trump’s decision also disregards concerns about the safety of American citizens and diplomats serving in the Middle East. Palestinians have already called for three “days of rage” in response, which will likely entail protests and possible violence across the West Bank and Gaza. Security warnings have been issued for American embassies across the Middle East, and special embassy security teams have been put on high alert in the event of violence. Indeed, even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis opposed the announcement because of their security concerns.

Finally, Trump’s decision is selfish because it disregards the work of his own peace proposal team, led by Jared Kushner, which has been working for months and is reportedly setting the table for proffering a major deal. It is hard to imagine that Kushner supported this step knowing it would likely jeopardize his efforts. The president talked about how all previous efforts have failed and that is why he is recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital now. But why not wait a few months, and then if Kushner’s initiative fails, go ahead with recognizing Jerusalem?

Instead, even if violence does not erupt, the Palestinians have already responded by stating that the change makes it impossible for the United States to act as an objective mediator and virtually eliminates the likelihood that Palestinian leaders will accept any proposal from Trump’s team.

It is not just the president’s selfishness that has been the problem. As has often been the case, this administration’s lack of deft and effective diplomacy has hobbled it. The most notable mistake in this case was the clumsy rollout. Starting Tuesday, President Trump began making calls to Palestinian President Abbas and a number of Arab leaders informing them of his decision. But the White House was not yet issuing a statement or providing journalists with sufficient background. When the story broke, all of the initial messages came from very unhappy Arab states and Palestinians who quickly rushed to the press. The narrative was set by opponents to the move while the White House was silent when it mattered most—and when it could have mitigated some of the worst reactions.

Moreover, when the administration did try to mitigate the consequences, it fumbled. During his statement, the president gave a partial nod to the possibility of a two-state solution for the first time. Trump’s team considered this a major concession to the Palestinians. But it will do nothing to offset the anger over Jerusalem. The two-state solution has been American policy for a generation, and presidents before Trump have embraced it. Trump finally doing what Palestinians thought he should have done on day one will not placate them.

The administration also tried to blunt criticism by not immediately moving the embassy and instead simply declaring Jerusalem Israel’s capital. This will do little. The central issue for the Muslim world is not where the American embassy is. It is the final disposition of Jerusalem that matters to them.

Administration officials have also argued that by sticking to his campaign promise, the president will appear serious and credible. Nothing could be further from the truth. The rest of the world has always viewed this particular promise as pure American domestic politics.

Sadly, the Trump administration has missed a real opportunity. Instead of dropping a one-off announcement like a bomb that makes future efforts impossible, he could have recognized Jerusalem as the capital and moved the embassy as part of a broader peace plan. The administration could have rolled out a series of parameters for solving the conflict and made them the basis for starting a negotiation. Such parameters have thwarted negotiators for a generation, and trying to get both sides to accept them would have been a bold and meaningful step that could have also incorporated the embassy move.

Here’s how that could have worked: To address Israeli concerns, the parameters would acknowledge that any agreement must meet Israel’s security concerns and that a solution would not involve the flow of huge numbers of Palestinian refugees into Israel. In exchange for that, Palestinians would receive a state of their own in the territory held by Jordan and Egypt before the 1967 war, with mutually agreed land swaps to ensure most Jewish population centers in the West Bank are brought into Israel. And there would also be acknowledgement that Palestinians and Israelis would both have capitals in Jerusalem. As part of that effort, the president could have announced that the United States is recognizing two capitals in Jerusalem—one for each side. And that it would build a new American embassy to Israel in Jerusalem and also convert the current American consulate in Jerusalem (which already acts like an embassy to the Palestinians) into a permanent embassy.

But instead of pursuing such a nuanced and balanced approach, the president instead chose to simply throw gasoline on a simmering fire. At this point, no one knows where this will go. The best-case scenario is that this kills the Kushner peace initiative but after a couple of days of protests, things blow over. The much more worrisome scenario is that it leads to a regional explosion.