Wednesday’s expected announcement that President Trump will declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel is only the latest evidence that there are two separate Trump administration policies working against each other, one to be uniquely strong on Israel and one to achieve the “ultimate deal” for Middle East peace. There’s little doubt which policy will win out in the end.
Administration officials confirmed that Trump has decided to change U.S. policy to explicitly recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State, a decision already condemned by Palestinian and Arab leaders that has the State Department preparing for a potentially violent regional reaction. However, Trump is expected to waive the law calling for the U.S. Embassy to be relocated there, as every president has done since 1995 and as he did in June, to give more time to prepare for that move.
The White House will frame Trump’s announcement as consistent with its drive to achieve Middle East peace, a process being led by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. They will say the move does not preempt the negotiation over the fate of Jerusalem as a final status issue to be decided by the parties. They may even argue it creates leverage over the Palestinians.
It’s a tricky messaging strategy that is designed to minimize the harm done to the peace process by the Jerusalem announcement and preserve space for future negotiations. And it’s unlikely to dispel the perception by many that Trump has just undermined his own peace initiative.
“On this issue and every other, domestic politics, campaign commitments and personal ego trumps sound foreign policy instincts and it’s happening in a delayed way on the Israel-Palestine issue,” said former Mideast negotiator Aaron David Miller. “It’s a fundamental contradiction. That tension has been there from the beginning but it just showing now.”
There’s no way to argue the Jerusalem move is helpful for the peace process, officials acknowledge. But Kushner and his lead staffer, Jason Greenblatt, did not oppose Wednesday’s announcement. For one thing, they understood Trump’s personal desire to show some progress on his campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, short of actually doing it now. Also, the lack of concrete progress in the peace process makes it more difficult for Kushner and Greenblatt to argue against other moves, even those that make a deal harder to achieve.
The Jerusalem announcement follows other administration moves that undermine the peace drive but help fulfill Trump’s campaign promise to strengthen ties with Israel and get tougher on the Palestinians. The White House determined that the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington had to shut down because the PLO’s action against Israel at the International Criminal Court had triggered a law mandating such punishment.
After the Palestinians responded by threatening to end their participation in the peace process, the administration backtracked and said the PLO office could remain open as long as it limited activities “to those related to achieving a lasting, comprehensive peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.”
Kushner has personally pushed issues that contradict his goal of negotiations. In August, he pressed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the issue of Palestinian Authority payments to prisoners, slain militants and their families. Abbas reportedly told Kushner he would never stop making the payments.
The next month, the White House announced its support for the Taylor Force Act, legislation that would cut U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority equal to the amount it pays militants and their families. The House of Representatives passed the bill by an overwhelming margin Tuesday.
Eventually, the tension between Trump’s competing pro-Israel and dealmaking instincts will become untenable — and the first will win out.
In his remarks at last week’s Saban Forum in Washington, Kushner said that the administration was working on a peace proposal, but wouldn’t provide details or a timeline. “We know what’s in the plan,” he said. “I’m optimistic there is a lot of hope for bringing a conclusion to this.”
The administration denied the New York Times report that Trump’s plan had been negotiated with Saudi Arabia and would be tilted toward Israel in way sure to be unacceptable to the Palestinians. An administration official told me: “We are looking for regional support, not regional pressure.”
And while there is no deadline on the peace initiative, there is a limit to Trump’s patience. Trump’s two Israel policies can’t coexist forever. If the deal doesn’t get done soon — and it doesn’t look promising — expect Trump to move forward with the Israel policy he originally wanted, before he wanted peace.