This week, President Trump declared that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. As expected, the move drew praise from Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and condemnation from a variety of Arab and Palestinian leaders. What will this decision mean for the possibility that the United States could lead negotiations toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
It takes two to tango
When Ehud Barak led the Israeli delegation to the Camp David summit in July 2000, one of his central mistakes was believing he understood the Palestinian bottom lines on core issues such as borders, land, Jerusalem and refugees. For example, Palestinian diplomats expected to negotiate for full sovereignty in the inner Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, not just for control or some other form of partial sovereignty. And they required a contiguous West Bank, not one divided in several parts. The negotiations foundered on those and other gaps.
During the next serious talks, held in Taba, Egypt, in 2001, Israeli negotiators — without Barak — had shifted their offers to something closer to the Palestinians’ real minimum demands. While the talks still failed to reach a resolution, that shift suggested that success could result only from Israelis and Palestinians actually wrestling with the other side’s positions rather than what they hoped those positions would be.
During the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, the United States still tried to push the diplomatic process forward, but the few intensive efforts fell short. Israelis and Palestinians grew increasingly pessimistic that a final resolution was possible.
Trump’s statement elevated Israel far above the Palestinian Authority — and suggested no need for Israel to engage with Palestinian positions
Now the Trump administration claims it will put forth a comprehensive proposal for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But even without the latest decision on Jerusalem, the likelihood of a breakthrough is slim. Deep distrust divides Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Palestinian politics are divided profoundly between Hamas and Fatah, Abbas’s party. And many Israeli officials apparently prefer the status quo to a negotiated two-state solution. For instance, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, in an ebullient reaction to the new U.S. policy, told NPR that Israel alone should rule Jerusalem.
In his statement Wednesday, Trump did not offer any support for the Palestinian movement. He could have said the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital today and as Palestine’s capital after a negotiated two-state solution. Trump could have said Israelis and Palestinians have deep, legitimate connections to the city. But he did not.
Further, Trump could have said that the United States would recognize only certain parts of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, building on the idea suggested in Bill Clinton’s 2000 plan, which stated: “The general principle is that Arab areas are Palestinian and Jewish ones are Israeli.” Or he could have mentioned the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, a compromise peace plan put forward by Saudi Arabia and endorsed by the League of Arab States, which called for a Palestinian state “with east Jerusalem as its capital.”
Instead, Trump said, “it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. . . . the capital the Jewish people established in ancient times.” He appeared to give Israel veto power over any negotiations, saying, “The United States would support a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides.” Alternative formulations would have included saying that the United States supports a two-state solution or a final, negotiated resolution. In Trump’s formulation this week, he made clear that if Israel does not agree to pursue a two-state solution through negotiations or does not agree to talks that might accept the existence and legitimacy of a Palestinian national movement, then for U.S. purposes, no such movement matters.
What Trump’s Jerusalem proclamation tells us is that the Trump administration does not view the Palestinian national movement as a near-equal negotiating partner, and therefore the administration is unlikely to produce a proposal for negotiations that might bridge gaps between the two sides. The complete lack of symmetry, even for a country that has long favored its relations with Israel over those with the Palestinian national movement, was clear in his remarks — despite the glancing comment “God bless the Palestinians” in his sign-off. That’s why Netanyahu could compare Trump’s statement to the historic Balfour Declaration of 1917, a British statement that viewed “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
As a result, successful negotiations are highly unlikely
If Trump administration officials do not view the Palestinian Authority as a legitimate actor with rights, that does not bode well for any comprehensive proposal. Reports of the as-yet-unreleased Trump administration Israeli-Palestinian proposal suggest something close to Israel’s perspective and distant from the positions of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.
Again, Trump has shown that he does not feel bound by U.S. precedents. In fact, his rejection of old policies and points of view is part of his brand, as was clear when he said Wednesday, “When I came into office, I promised to look at the world’s challenges with open eyes and very fresh thinking.”
The Jerusalem issue gave the president a chance to repudiate not only his predecessor Obama but also Bush and much of the national security establishment that has long favored delaying this move. There was no international pressure to make this move now. In fact, most observers believed that waiting on recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would keep that issue to exchange for an Israeli concession on something else during negotiations. The announcement forfeited that possibility.
This U.S. policy shift might help us anticipate how Trump will handle any push for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The Palestinian side should expect that the baseline positions on Jerusalem, land, refugees, security and settlements built up in negotiations at Camp David and Taba in 2000 and 2001 and at Annapolis in 2007 and 2008, and in the talks held under Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton in 2010 and John F. Kerry in 2013 and 2014, will not serve as a starting point.
Rather, this president is likely to break with the past. Maybe his administration’s plan will be something radically new. Or maybe it will simply be much closer to Netanyahu’s ideas than to past U.S. approaches.
Jeremy Pressman (@djpressman) is an associate professor of political science and director of Middle East studies at the University of Connecticut.