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Opinion Trump’s Jerusalem decision is a foreign policy move without purpose

President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last week. (Oded Balilty/Associated Press)

Contrary to passionate advocates on both sides who paint President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as either a master stroke or a catastrophe, we’ve suggested that it is less than meets the eye — and indicative of a non-policy-based foreign policy. It’s reassuring that two highly respected foreign policy gurus concur:

JOHN DICKERSON: Kori, let me start with you. I tried to get the U.N. ambassador to give me a sense of why now on Jerusalem. Why now?
KORI SCHAKE, HOOVER INSTITUTION: It’s not clear why now. I think the White House is hoping that it will push the peace process forward by — as Nikki Haley said, taking Jerusalem off the table. I think that’s unlikely to prove true. I think it’s going to make that peace process a lot more complicated because it doesn’t look like they — it doesn’t look like they had anything to offer Palestinians. . . . And so it’s surprising that other countries in the region care less, in part because they need more cooperation from Israel now than before.
DICKERSON: Michael, what’s your view, people to see this violence. What — how should they see this? Big deal? Should they be nervous? What’s your sense?
MICHAEL O’HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Well, I’m glad that you asked it that way, John, because I think it’s — it’s a medium deal. It’s not the end of the world. President Trump didn’t say that east Jerusalem could never be the capital for Palestine. He didn’t make any other such declarations that were really out of what we all expect in any kind of a final peace agreement anyway. And, of course, the peace process, even though Kori’s totally right, that it’s — this is not helpful to the peace process, it wasn’t exactly going any place anyway.
So I think there are bigger questions about what kind of leverage can we create with both parties. And perhaps we need to think harder about that. But I don’t see this as more than what my colleague Natan Sachs calls an unforced error. In other words, it’s not tragedy. It’s probably a mistake. It probably complicates the atmosphere I’m not sure it really changes the terms of any potential peace deal or really impedes any negotiation that was having any momentum to begin with.

What is troubling is that the administration has been unable to explain its talking point that this helps the peace process. (Trumpian exaggeration often rejects a criticism or slight by making a wild claim to the contrary — as with the White House’s stupid insistence about having the largest inaugural crowd ever.) The usually articulate U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had an unusually painful outing as she tried to rationalize the move. Here was the exchange on CNN:

JAKE TAPPER: Your administration, of course, has made peace in the Middle East one of its top priorities. How does this move help that? How does it help the peace process in any way?
HALEY: Well, let’s, first of all, talk about what this does.
This basically says that the United States acknowledges that the capital of Israel is Jerusalem, and saying also that the embassy is going to be moved to the capital, just like it is in almost every other country.
In Israel, in Jerusalem, you have got the Parliament, you have got the president, you have got the prime minister, you have got the Supreme Court. So, why shouldn’t we have the embassy there?
Secondly, I will tell you that, for 22 years, you have had presidents and the American people ask for the embassy to be moved. And no president, not — not Clinton, not Bush, not Obama, actually made — had the courage to make that move and listen to the will of the American people.
The Senate just overwhelmingly again voted to have the embassy moved. So, the president did the will of the people.
When it comes to those that are upset, we knew that was going to happen. But courage does cause that. When you make a decision, you are going to have some that see it negatively and you’re going to have some that see it positively.
But I strongly believe this is going to move the ball forward for the peace process.
TAPPER: How is it going to move the ball forward for the peace process?  . . . Isn’t this just cashing in a chit and getting nothing for it? How does this move the peace process forward in any way?
HALEY: Not at all.
And I will tell you, all the presidents wanted to do it, and everyone around them kept saying, don’t do it, don’t do it. This president said, for 22 years, that waiting didn’t help us. Now let’s try and move the ball.
What I will tell you is, you know, you have to look at the situation, that he just took Jerusalem off the table. He just took it off the table. So, now they get to come together. They get to decide what the
borders will look like. They get to decide the boundaries. And they get to talk about how they want to see Jerusalem going forward.
All we did was say, this is not something that we’re going to allow to happen in the middle of your negotiations. You come together, and you decide what you want from the Israelis and the Palestinians for the peace process to look like. And that’s what we’re going to continue to do.
And in terms of the Arab League, yes, they have said that, but we have a whole lot more in common with the Arab League than we have ever had before. And, mainly, that’s because of our fight against Iran.
And so, you know, while this is one issue they disagree with, there’s a whole lot of other issues that we are working very closely with them on.

But that didn’t explain how this move helps. Tapper kept trying:

TAPPER: Do you have no concerns that this decision is going to weaken the moderate voices in the Arab world and strengthen the zealots?
HALEY: No, because — I have no concern, because what they mostly care about and what is their priority right now is Iran.
And we are in lockstep with them. And we have done a great job of talking about how we’re going to fight extremists.
You know, Jake, when the president made this comment on Wednesday, everybody said the sky was going to fall. So, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, the sky is still up there. It hasn’t fallen. It is maybe human nature for some to say, this is terrible, this is terrible, but what if this actually moved the ball forward?
TAPPER: How? You keep…
HALEY: And that’s what the American people…
TAPPER: But, Madam Secretary, you keep saying that, and I still don’t see how it moves the ball forward in terms of the peace process.
All you have done, all the president has done is remove something from the table that could have been used to either force the Israelis to concede something or force the Palestinians to concede something.
HALEY:  . . . . Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. What is wrong with saying it?
TAPPER: What about East Jerusalem?
HALEY: The American people have agreed with that.
TAPPER: But what about East Jerusalem? This is…
HALEY: We did not talk about boundaries or borders for a reason.
And that’s because whatever is East Jerusalem or any other part, that’s between the Palestinians and the Israelis. That’s not for the Americans to decide. The Americans just said, we want our embassy in the capital. And that capital in Jerusalem.
TAPPER: I still don’t see how it moves the peace process forward.

The answer is it doesn’t, and the administration should stop claiming it does so. There is no peace process right now, and the naive attempt by Jared Kushner to start one will almost certainly make the administration look more inept than it already does.

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

The White House would do much better with candor: This was a campaign promise and an irritant to Israel that Trump wanted to remove. Period. As for the peace process, we’d be better off working now on small, achievable gains.

Next time Haley is asked how this helps, she might try Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s standby: Ask the president. 

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