With his decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, President Trump did something puzzling for a person who claims to be a great dealmaker. He made a massive, preemptive concession to one side in a complicated negotiation without getting anything for it in return. If that’s how he operates, it’s no wonder so many of his former colleagues think he isn’t a very successful businessman after all.
Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and will remain so. I don’t dispute the facts or its merits. But the reason that all 86 countries that have embassies in Israel have so far located them in Tel Aviv is that Jerusalem is an integral part of the final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinians claim the city as their capital as well. It contains sites sacred to all three of the world’s Abrahamic faiths. It has within it a large Arab population that, even after decades of new Israeli settlements, comprises more than a third of the city’s total. So, the formal status of Jerusalem has always been seen — by Republicans and Democrats, Europeans and Asians — as a matter to be codified in the context of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
If this move were part of a larger strategic plan, that would be one thing. In that case, Trump’s announcement would have been carefully plotted out, coupled with serious policy changes from Israel, or it would have been part of a series of measures to reassure both sides. Instead, it appears to be a one-off decision, designed largely to delight core elements of Trump’s base at home — evangelical Christians and pro-Israel donors. The only strategic aspect appears to be that it will help shore up the GOP base on the eve of Roy Moore’s senatorial contest in Alabama. That’s not diplomacy; that’s pandering.
There are ways to solve the Jerusalem problem, such as by carving out some neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city and allowing the Palestinians to claim those as their capital. Trump’s announcement did not specifically foreclose this possibility, which makes the choice even more puzzling. It actually achieves little on the ground, all while offending millions of Palestinians, hundreds of millions of Arabs and public opinion almost everywhere. When China, European allies, the pope, and the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan all voice strong opposition, it is surely worth questioning the wisdom of the policy.
The potential relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem has always been a symbolic gesture, designed more to appeal to Americans than to advance peace and stability in the Middle East. The Israeli scholar Yoav Fromer points out that in 1995, as Bob Dole was planning his campaign to challenge Bill Clinton for the presidency, he wanted to present himself as ardently pro-Israel. His voting record did not demonstrate this, so he decided to latch on to a symbolic issue instead. Thus was born the law that requires the United States to move its embassy, though it provided for a six-month waiver that every president has continually renewed, not wanting to give away a chip that could be crucial in the negotiations for a peace settlement.
While many people have predicted violence in the Middle East, it’s likely that this will be contained. Israel is now the regional superpower, and its neighbors know it. It also has tight control over the Palestinian territories, with a network of barriers, checkpoints and intelligence operations. Terrorism, for most Israelis, is a problem that has gone away.
The danger is really that this decision only adds to the mounting despair of Palestinians, who are already weak, divided and dysfunctional. They have never had good leadership, but they barely have any leadership right now. They live in an unusual, almost unique condition in the modern world: citizens of no state, without a country of their own.
Meanwhile, Israel will continue to prosper economically and maintain its genuinely democratic character, but with one large caveat: It will rule over lands with millions of people who lack full political rights. That cancer at the heart of Israel’s democratic system and culture will remain and might intensify as Israeli Arabs grow in numbers. There will be an Israel that looks like Switzerland, surrounded by a Palestine that looks like Bangladesh. It’s possible that at some point this inequality of income, status and political rights will lead to some kind of explosion. It will certainly lead to greater polarization and discord. And America’s action this week will have deepened these fissures and exacerbated the tensions.
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