President Trump was repeatedly warned not to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would not accept the decision, and an Abbas adviser said it would signify the “complete destruction of the peace process.” The Arab News predicted that the “two-state solution would be over.” The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that it would “blow up [Jared] Kushner’s peace plan.” And former CIA director John Brennan warned that it would be “a foreign policy blunder of historic proportion.”
Sharing many of the same concerns, professionals at the State Department and the National Security Council scrambled to find ways to limit the damage this decision might inflict on any chance for a negotiated resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of these officials contacted me asking if the Arabic name for Jerusalem, “Al-Quds,” referred to the very same area that the Hebrew term “Yerushalayim” refers to.
It was a good question, because the answer is no. If Trump was determined to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he might have found a less damaging way to do it, and he could have balanced his action by similarly rewarding the Palestinians outside the negotiating process. Still, his tactically inept maneuver does not signal the end of the two-state solution. Jews and Palestinians both treasure the idea of Jerusalem, but in my research, the parts they see as essential barely overlap. If the sides ever came back to the bargaining table — which, admittedly, they’ve shown no sign of doing recently — Trump’s decision won’t prejudge the ultimate outcome.
I was the lead author of “Negotiating Jerusalem ,” a comprehensive study published in 2000 on how Palestinians and Jewish Israelis feel and think about Jerusalem. My colleagues and I undertook our investigation in a more focused manner than previous researchers employed. Instead of asking questions only about Jerusalem as a whole — to which there were familiar and predictable answers — we asked Israelis and Palestinians very location-specific questions about the many parts of the area that Israel defines as the city of Jerusalem.
The most important series of questions was: “To what extent is [blank] important to you as Yerushalayim?” and “To what extent is [blank] important to you as Al-Quds?” In place of that blank, we substituted the Arabic or Hebrew terms for the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Mount of Olives, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, the Islamic Quarter of the Old City, the Arab neighborhoods in downtown East Jerusalem, the Arab village areas that were included in East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, the new Jewish neighborhoods established in East Jerusalem after 1967, the old Jewish neighborhoods in the western part of the city and the Old City itself.
The results helped provide the basis for Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s willingness to divide the city and for President Bill Clinton’s Jerusalem parameter: “Arab areas are Palestinian and Jewish ones are Israeli.” This is still a viable model for a final deal.
What we found on both sides was a parallel response. Emotionally, neither people views Jerusalem as a unified, coherent bloc. Both sides make major distinctions between the parts of the city that are of vital importance to them and those that are not. This conclusion was very robust, shared by all subgroups within both populations.
Both sides also placed extraordinary value on the areas where their own people live and distinctly less on the areas of residence of the other side: Ninety-two percent of Palestinians said the Palestinian neighborhoods in downtown East Jerusalem were important or very important to them “as Jerusalem,” but when asked about the Jewish neighborhoods in the western part of the city, such as Rehavia or Talbieh, only 44 percent of Palestinians ranked them as important or very important. Indeed, 37 percent ranked them as “not at all important” as Jerusalem.
Israelis had a parallel response. A full 95 percent said the new Jewish neighborhoods constructed in East Jerusalem, including Ramot and Pisgat Zeev, were important or very important “as Jerusalem,” but with respect to the Arab village areas, such as Um Tuba and Sur Baher, that before the 1967 municipal expansion had been viewed as part of the West Bank, only 42 percent of Israelis considered them important or very important “as Jerusalem.”
This differentiation continued even into the Old City. When it was taken as a whole, 98 percent of Israelis viewed it as important or very important; so did 97 percent of Palestinians. But when we disaggregated, we found that 59 percent of Palestinians said the Jewish Quarter of the Old City was “not so important” or “not at all important” as Jerusalem. And when we asked Israelis about the non-Jewish quarters of the Old City, 40 percent felt the same way.
The one element in the entire city, above all else, that stood out as critically important to both peoples was the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, where Jews believe the first and second temples described in the Bible once stood, and where today we find the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which commemorates the spot from which Muslims believe Muhammad ascended to heaven. For Israelis, 93 percent said the Temple Mount was important or very important “as Jerusalem,” and among Palestinians this rose to 99 percent.
Here, then, was the answer to the question from the government official who contacted me: No, for Palestinians, the real and vital Al-Quds is largely not the same as the real and vital Yerushalayim. The emotional and mental maps of Israelis and Palestinians overlap primarily on 1 percent of the city, the Old City, and even there, mostly with respect to the Temple Mount. Of course, this nuance vanishes when you simply use the broad concepts “Jerusalem,” “Al-Quds,” “Yerushalayim.”
It was very unfortunate that, when Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he wasn’t location-specific. His statement was translated throughout the Arab world as “Today we finally acknowledge the obvious, that Al-Quds is Israel’s capital.” The president attempted damage-control by saying, “We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.” What he should have said is: “We are recognizing that part of Jerusalem, the Western part that Israel has controlled since 1949, as sovereign Israeli territory, and therefore we will move our embassy to this area. However, we continue to view all the parts of Jerusalem that are beyond the 1949 Armistice line, including the historic Old City, as disputed territories whose status can only be resolved through negotiations.” This would have been one-sided but at least accurate and far less incendiary.
While hopes for peace have not entirely vanished, Trump did demolish one component of his own peace process strategy: postponing negotiations on Jerusalem and refugees to a later stage in the peace process. Now that he has pronounced Al-Quds to be Israel’s capital, there is no Palestinian or Arab leader who will accept a timeline that leaves those questions for later.
If and when they resume, the negotiations will now, of necessity, have to address the central issue of sovereignty in Jerusalem. But that is not inevitably a deal-breaking problem. We know that Jews can live with Palestinian control of Palestinian areas, and that Palestinians can live with Jewish control of Jewish areas.
The Temple Mount is the tricky spot: No Palestinian leader will ever agree to exclusive Israeli sovereignty there, and no Israeli government will ever agree to exclusive Palestinian sovereignty. Wisely, the sovereignty question has been put aside in some solutions, such as that of the late King Hussein of Jordan, who proposed that, atop the Temple Mount, both parties can agree that sovereignty belongs to God. In that scenario, the sides negotiate a formal administrative agreement built on the status quo, within which Jordan plays a central role.
All this, and more — even a creative solution to the refugee issue — might be possible in a world with different political players. The Palestinians know that the terms of the deal they would be offered by a centrist Israeli government would be vastly more to their liking than anything the current right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu will agree to. They will wait and hope for change. Netanyahu is facing possible indictment; his future is uncertain. But Abbas (who is 82) represents the most moderate strand of Palestinian moderation. Political change on the Palestinian side may make things worse. A changing cast of characters is likely, but its impact is unpredictable. The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations gap will shrink only if the Palestinian leadership remains moderate and the Israeli leadership moves toward the center. These are all much greater challenges than any utterance from Trump.