The most important question ahead of US President Donald Trump’s landmark speech on Wednesday recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was what exactly — or, rather, where exactly — he would mean when he said “Jerusalem.” Would he specify “West Jerusalem?” No great achievement for Israel in that; even the Russians have done so. Would he speak of a “united Jerusalem” or a “unified Jerusalem,” as most of the Israeli leadership would wish? Or would he be constructively vague?
In fact, he found a fourth option. He declared America’s recognition of Jerusalem while subtly but clearly indicating that, for now, he was speaking about the ostensibly non-disputed Israeli areas of the city.
It was a simple fact that, for 70 years, modern Israel has made its capital in Jerusalem, Trump said. Indeed it has, but not in the entire city; East Jerusalem was captured 50 years ago, and Israeli sovereignty extended to that part of the city more than a decade later still.
Jerusalem, he went on, is the heart of Israel’s successful democracy — the location of the Knesset, the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister’s Office and the President’s Residence, he further stressed. Absolutely the case. And none of those capital landmarks is situated in that part of the city captured in 1967.
For decades, American presidents and other representatives have met with their Israeli counterparts in Jerusalem, he noted. Quite so. In pre-1967 Jerusalem, that is.
Trump’s announcement was a warm endorsement of sovereign Israel’s prerogative to choose its own capital, and constituted decisive backing for Israel’s right to have done so in Jerusalem — “the capital the Jewish people established in ancient times.” He ridiculed the fact that, to date, America had “declined to acknowledge any Israeli capital at all” (complete with an unbecoming dig at his predecessors who ostensibly “lacked courage” to do so). As the only president to have prayed at the Western Wall while in office, the speech reflected his support for Israel. But it did not serve as a presidential endorsement of Israel’s claims to all of Jerusalem.
Some might argue that Trump was recognizing Israeli sovereignty throughout the city when he declared that “Jerusalem is today, and must remain, a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall, where Christians walk the Stations of the Cross and where Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque.” But he was clear about this. His speech included a call to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, including the Temple Mount, which he also carefully referred to as Haram al-Sharif. And he explicitly stated that his announcement did not commit the US to a position “on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.” Those matters would have to be determined in negotiations.
Indeed, far from ruling out a Palestinian state, he potentially ruled it in, saying that the US would accept a two-state solution if the Israelis and Palestinians agreed on it.
The Arab world, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the forefront, had warned Trump against recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and beginning the process of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Even before Trump spoke, loyalists of Abbas, as well as those of the Hamas terror group, had vowed to respond with days of rage.
And for all the delicacy of Trump’s statement, his critics in the Arab world and beyond can rightly claim that the US president did partially prejudge one of the most sensitive final status issues, by taking a position on any part of Jerusalem. Moreover, he made his speech in a vacuum — with no specific peace plan on the table. But the position he took does not rule out the peaceful statehood goals Abbas purports to seek. Israel has no intention of fully granting the Palestinians the sovereignty they demand in East Jerusalem, but were an Israeli government to do so, such an agreement would not stand in conflict with Trump’s declaration.
Jerusalem is a spectacularly combustible issue, which is why so many voices — not all of them hostile to Israel, by any means — urged Trump to leave it alone for now. There can be little doubt that the president’s statement will prompt unrest, and possibly a great deal more than unrest, on the ground. And it is highly unlikely to bring Abbas running to the negotiating table. His predecessor Yasser Arafat doomed the empathetic president Bill Clinton’s 2000 peace effort, and Abbas himself barely made it to talks during the 10-month settlement freeze that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu grudgingly accepted under president Barack Obama. The PA president is not now about to jump at Trump’s plea to “join the noble quest for lasting peace.”
But if Abbas did truly want to come to the negotiating table, there was nothing in Trump’s Jerusalem address on Wednesday that closed the door on any of his ostensible goals. The president insisted that “We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians.” The Palestinians, and many others, may not believe him. But that’s what he said.