This posted has been updated, 3:45 p.m.
Defying dire, worldwide warnings, President Donald Trump on Wednesday broke with decades of U.S. and international policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Despite urgent appeals from Arab and European leaders and the risk of anti-American protests and violence, Trump declared that he was ending an approach that for decades has failed to advance the prospects for peace. He also for the first time personally endorsed the concept of a “two-state solution” for Israel and the Palestinians, provided both sides agree to it.
“I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” he said in a White House address, calling it “overdue” and in the best interests of the United States. He said recognition acknowledged the “obvious” that Jerusalem is the seat of Israel’s government despite the disputed status that is one of the key elements in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“This is nothing more or less than the recognition of reality,” he said. … Trump maintained that his decision would not compromise the city’s geographic and political borders, which will still be determined by Israel and the Palestinians.
As a practical matter, Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish state. The Knesset, the prime minister’s office and the Israeli Supreme Court are all located in West Jerusalem. Moreover, Russia this year recognized West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, so it is not as if the United States would be the lone country to recognize Jerusalem’s effective status as the seat of government. That said, the United State recognizing Jerusalem as a whole as Israel’s capital is quite different.
The move strikes me as neither cause for wild celebration nor for apocalyptic talk. A former senior Senate adviser, strongly supportive of the Jewish state and closely involved in Middle East issues, cautioned that it is “a distraction from far more important things happening in the region that we should be dealing with.” The former adviser observes, “On my list of top 20 things for the U.S. to do in the Middle East, this wouldn’t make the cut — but neither do I think it’s going to bring about the end of days, as a lot of folks are now fulminating.”
Longtime Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller says this isn’t about foreign policy interests. “If you could identify a single U.S. national interest that is served and that outweighs the downsides; or that’s part of a strategy (dare I even use the word), [that would be] okay,” he says. However, he adds, he “can’t come up with one.”
My Post colleague Robert Kagan, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, agrees that “this isn’t foreign policy.” He says, “It’s pandering — not that it isn’t just and right, but even the Bush administration didn’t do it unilaterally, in the absence of progress toward a settlement.” He explains, “We should be good allies to Israel, but that doesn’t mean following Israeli strategic or political advice. They have their interests, and we have ours. We shouldn’t confuse the two.”
In other words, our foreign interests align with Israel’s but are not identical. An actual foreign policy would balance competing concerns and try to keep all our allies in the fold. It would not take unnecessary risks to please domestic constituents. And it would do the hard work of pressing the Palestinians to rid themselves of Hamas and begin building civil institutions.
The question on recognition of Jerusalem is whether it does more harm than good for U.S. interests and for Israel’s long-term benefit. As for the former, it’s precisely because Russia is not seen as an honest broker for a peace process (albeit a moribund one) that its move was less controversial. (And by specifying that it was recognizing only West Jerusalem as the capital, Russia emphasized that the final status of the city remains open.)
From the U.S. perspective, our decision gives Arab states reason to rebuke, ignore and defy our preferences. Grandstanding for the benefit of Arab states’ domestic audiences may come back in style. If in the long run we lose influence with Sunni states, whose cooperation we need these days more than usual, the move will be seen as counterproductive.
Now, I don’t mean that a final peace process is viable now or anytime in the near future. Jared Kushner’s dream of brokering a master settlement is arrogant and naive. But if that’s the administration’s real design, it’s hard to see how this helps. On a more serious note, we should be concerned with prodding the Palestinians on a variety of fronts (e.g., ending incitement of violence, rejecting Hamas), so it’s hard to see how this makes us more influential.
As for Israel, the elected government plainly wants this recognition, a political boon to the prime minister at a time he is facing political bickering (as always) and allegations of corruption. The issue as to whether this largely symbolic move will backfire, making newly improved relations with Sunni states more difficult, remains to be seen. These states will issue pro forma rebukes and perhaps bring resolutions to the United Nations. But will they really risk vital cooperation with Israel essential to their own defense against their main threat, Iranian aggression? It’s not unknown for an Arab government to cut off its nose to spite its face, but it seems that self-interested security will prevail. What may be damaged is the outward, public friendliness demonstrated toward the Jewish state and its newfound status as an international diplomatic player, an unprecedented development.
When it comes to Trump, the overriding preoccupation is with pleasing his base — which usually means doing the opposite of what President Barack Obama did. In that regard, his move “worked.” Christians United for Israel, a 3.8 million-member pro-Israel group of mostly evangelicals, is praising him to the hilt. But Trump lacks a coherent foreign policy — and grand one-off gestures (a strike on Syria, decertifying the Iran deal, recognizing Jerusalem) are a poor substitute. Furthermore, the danger is that these symbolic actions — pushed by reckless right-wing politicians and hyped-up commentators — have detrimental real-world consequences that make the United States weaker and separate us from our traditional allies. In this case, we should pray the backlash is limited and containable.