Monday, as an American delegation including Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Steve Mnuchin, and top Republicans from Congress gathers for a ceremony to mark the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, they may also be marking another milestone: the end of America’s role as the central mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.*
Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the United States has been the primary negotiator between Israelis and Palestinians. Bill Clinton came closest to ending the conflict during the failed Camp David summit between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak in 2000. George Bush led the Annapolis process in 2007–08, failing to yield results. And most recently, under Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry spearheaded an effort in 2013–14, which also crashed and burned. (I was part of the State Department negotiating team in that latest round.)
In every one of these talks, other countries played an important supporting role. The Norwegians hosted the secret dialogue that led to the initial breakthrough in 1993 and set the terms for future negotiations between Israelis and the Palestinians. The Arab states, especially Egypt and Jordan but also increasingly Saudi Arabia, have been brought in to give the Palestinians greater political cover while offering incentives to the Israelis in the form of full normalization with the Arab world. The international community has provided humanitarian, economic, and political support through the Middle East Quartet, which comprises the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia.
But the United States has always been the irreplaceable player. This was not because we were viewed as evenhanded brokers. We weren’t. We tried our best to be evenhanded, but Americans have always had the strongest relationship with Israel. The United States was viewed as the key, because it was the only one that could deliver Israel. The special relationship between the two countries meant that the United States could reassure Israel, providing it with the security and diplomatic assurances it needs to take the risk of offering the Palestinians a state and territorial control of most of the West Bank. But also that it had the most leverage in pressing the Israelis to accept American proposals.
Twenty-five years of failure have already caused many people, especially on the Palestinian side, to question whether an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation under the auspices of the United States was the best way to achieve the two-state solution. And now, the decision by the Trump administration to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital may seal that doubt, eliminating any fiction that the United States could act as the effective sole mediator in bringing an end to the conflict.
Credible mediators cannot blatantly support one side over the other on a core issue in the negotiation, but that is precisely what the Trump administration has done. Conflicting Israeli and Palestinian claims on Jerusalem as their capital have always been at the heart of the conflict. The United States has traditionally chosen not to weigh in, instead stating that the issue must be resolved between the parties. This, despite the fact that American negotiators privately acknowledge that the only solution that makes sense is two capitals in Jerusalem.
If the United States wanted to move the ball forward, it could have announced the opening of two embassies in Jerusalem: one for Israel and one for the future state of Palestine. Or it could have conditioned moving the embassy to Jerusalem on an Israeli decision to reopen Palestinian governing institutions in East Jerusalem—institutions that had existed in the 1990s as a symbol of Palestinian self-rule and preparation for statehood that included Jerusalem. These institutions were closed after the eruption of violence during the second intifada in the early 2000s. Re-establishing them while also moving the U.S. Embassy would have given a big symbolic win to both sides while cementing the reality that any agreement would include two capitals in Jerusalem.
Instead, President Donald Trump chose to give a huge political gift to the Israelis while giving nothing to the Palestinians. He put his own campaign promises and political needs above the political needs of the parties themselves—precisely the opposite behavior of a credible mediator. It is no surprise that the Palestinians reacted to this announcement by cutting off ties with the Trump administration and have refused to meet at senior levels for the past five months.
The provocative timing of the embassy move only further undercuts American credibility. The move comes on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, a day commemorated by Palestinians as the “Nakba”—the catastrophe. It comes the day before the start of Ramadan, in the midst of mass protests in Gaza, and during escalating tensions in Syria between Israel and Iran.
Perhaps the only good news is that thus far the embassy move has not prompted significant violence. Palestinian security forces coordinating with Israelis have kept a lid on the situation in the West Bank. With the Middle East absorbed by civil war and domestic instability, the Palestinian issue has not been top of mind across the Arab world.
But why press our luck and throw additional uncertainty into a sensitive situation? That is not the role of a peacemaker. In its traditional role of mediator, America has always played the firefighter trying to put out the flames of the conflict. But by moving the embassy at this particularly sensitive moment, we are instead playing the arsonist.
This undercutting of the American role may worsen if the Trump administration then follows up the embassy move by releasing a new peace plan, as it has been preparing to do for months. According to media accounts, the plan would be a radical shift from previous U.S. efforts and offer the Israelis more than any previous American administration. Coming on the heels of the Jerusalem announcement, the Palestinians will dismiss it out of hand.
And for those who believe that this trend is temporary and that the United States will return to its central role after Trump—don’t bet on it. Given the domestic political blowback that would result, it is highly unlikely that any future American president will reverse the Jerusalem decision.
So what happens instead? The United States will continue to play an important role in any future negotiations. We remain the global superpower and the country with the closest ties to Israel. But others will have to be brought into the process as equal participants instead of remaining as the supporting cast. The format could be similar to the P5+1 (U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China) negotiations that reached a nuclear agreement with Iran.
It could include a regional formula that brings in the Arab State more directly. Or we may see greater involvement by the United Nations.
But whatever the new formula looks like, one thing is clear: The days when the United States dominated the Middle East peace process are likely coming to an end.
Correction, May 14, 2018: This article originally misstated that top congressional Democrats had attended a ceremony to mark the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. There were no Democrats in attendance.