AnalysisAngering one side, giving the other what it wasn't demanding

If I recognize thee, O Jerusalem: What Trump’s move means for the region

President’s speech marks the first time a country recognized Israel’s capital, but his new position may kill off any prospect of his peace efforts succeeding

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Then-US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City, on May 22, 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)
Then-US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City, on May 22, 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

Almost exactly 70 years after the announcement of the UN Partition Plan — which proposed to internationalize Jerusalem, and was thus responsible for the fact that no country in the world ever acknowledged Israeli sovereignty over it — the most powerful nation on earth finally recognized the city as Israel’s capital.

The significance of this move, in diplomatic terms, can hardly be overstated. In a few months, the world will mark the 70th birthday of the Jewish state. On Wednesday, for the first time in two millennia, a superpower recognized the Jewish state’s claim to its ancient capital.

The exuberant joy of many Israelis is thus understandable. Quite a few of them praised US President Donald Trump for correcting what they felt was a historic anomaly. Others soberly remarked that his speech merely expressed what had been obvious to them for decades.

Indeed, besides Trump’s pledge to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a step that is expected to take several years, very little of what he said will have a direct, concrete impact on Israelis’ everyday life. Unless, of course, the angry Arab fallout does.

He also reiterated his desire to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, but once again failed to explain how he plans to get there.

US President Donald Trump signs a memorandum after he delivered a statement on Jerusalem from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 6, 2017. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Trump, speaking next to a Christmas tree in the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room, notably stuck to the term “Jerusalem,” avoiding making a policy decision that would have been still more significant: Had he recognized “West Jerusalem,” he would have strongly implied that he appreciates Palestinians’ claims over the eastern part of the city, or at least have made plain that he does not recognize Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem.

But he also avoided speaking of a “united Jerusalem” or an “undivided capital,” leaving us to guess which parts of Jerusalem he thinks are part of Israel and which ones, if any, should belong to a future Palestinian state.

Some understood Trump’s references to the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, which explicitly calls for the city to remain “undivided,” and the fact that he said that “Jerusalem is … a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall,” to mean that he considers “Jerusalem” to refer to a united city.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat also appeared to read the president’s words this way. “No country on earth has recognized Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, except for President Trump tonight,” he fumed.

On the other hand, the president emphasized that the US is “not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders.” These issues, he added, were for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate.

Trump did express readiness to support a two-state solution, but only “if agreed to by both sides.” While ostensibly intended to placate the Palestinians, this formulation is in essence a repetition of his February 14 statement at the White House, in which he famously said that he was “looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.”

A clear commitment to Palestinian statehood it was not. Not then, and not now.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his first response to Trump’s speech, did not rush to profess support for a two-state solution. Those knowing the domestic political situation he currently faces will not hold their breath.

Trump’s speech Wednesday, which he insisted would “advance the peace process,” was roundly condemned by the Palestinians and other Arab and Muslim leaders. It remains highly doubtful that the new US position will achieve the president’s stated aim, given that it greatly angered one side while giving the other side something it hadn’t been particularly focused on.

Trump could have played the embassy card either as an incentive (for Israel) or as a threat (to the Palestinians). By unilaterally making the move in the absence of a genuine peace process, he gave that card away for no apparent gain.

How exactly this move, at this point in time, will help advance peace remains utterly unclear. If anything, it may have killed any prospects of the Trump administration’s peace effort succeeding and could well draw the already volatile region into another spiral of violence.

The vociferous response to Israel’s decision this summer to install metal detectors at the Temple Mount (in response to a terror attack at the flashpoint holy site) showed how sensitive many Palestinians are when it comes to Jerusalem.

Israeli police clash with Palestinian protesters during a protest against metal detectors that were placed at gates to the Temple Mount, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on July 19, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Trump and Netanyahu both reiterated on Wednesday that the status quo at the Temple Mount will not change. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned that Trump’s speech will serve “extremist groups attempting to turn the conflict in our region into a religious war.” He did not, however, call for protests.

Besides immediate violence that may or may not break out in the coming hours and days — Palestinians are expected to air their rage after Friday prayers — Trump’s dramatic decision might also have some longer-term implications.

There are no free lunches, and some Israeli pundits have started wondering what Trump is going to ask Israel in return for the favor. Will he demand Netanyahu publicly commit to a two-state solution, or other concessions?

Others are certain he acted out of genuine conviction.

“When you do the right thing, there ought not to be a price,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party said earlier on Wednesday. “We have conditioned ourselves that when the right thing is done, there must be a price and it’s not true,” he said.

Either way, Abbas announced Wednesday evening that he views Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as “a declaration that the US has withdrawn from playing the role it has played in the past decades in sponsoring the peace process.”

US President Donald Trump meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the Oval Office of the White House on May 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. (AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN)

Six months after Abbas praised the president’s “courageous stewardship,” his “wisdom” and “great negotiating ability” which could finally give the Palestinian people “hope,” the Palestinians are adamant that this administration can no longer play any role in efforts to broker a peace deal.

Will powers such as Russia and China seek to fill that void? Moscow and Beijing have long sought larger roles in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu boasts of good relations with both countries, but is unlikely to embrace either as a replacement for US tutelage in any peace talks. Netanyahu is not going to negotiate Israeli security arrangements with governments that have close ties to Iran.

In less than two weeks, Vice President Mike Pence is arriving in the region. In Jerusalem, he will be welcomed as a hero. It will be interesting to see what his reception in Ramallah will be like.

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