The move to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and establish an embassy there is the most consequential American diplomatic action in the the Israeli-Arab conflict since the Truman administration’s recognition of the fledgling Israeli state seven decades ago. It ranks up there with the Balfour Declaration, which, in 1917, offered the Zionist movement, then a small minority in Palestine, critical imperial support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Violent confrontations, notably in Gaza, marked the festive opening of the embassy on May 14. Protesting the U.S. decision is certainly within the power of its many and varied opponents, the burden of which is already being counted in the ranks of those killed and injured in Gaza this week. But reversing the American fait accompli, which sets the United States and Israel against the international consensus on Jerusalem, is impossible.
Trump’s December 6, 2017 declaration represents a victory for Israel’s vision and the strategy devised for its realization. Like the earlier milestones in Israel’s history, the U.S. action has dramatically altered and, at the same time, defined the diplomatic landscape, not only in regard to Jerusalem, but more broadly the parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Arab, and U.S.-Arab relationships.
Trump’s personal and political interest in making such a declaration is well documented. But the critical factor that shaped the landscape on which the decision was taken was created by the Obama administration, which, for the first time since 1967, bequeathed to Trump a diplomatic wasteland lacking in any consensual diplomatic process, let alone agreement on the substantive issues contested by the parties. Obama’s sorry legacy—no serious or direct talks, no agreed upon objective, no agreed upon framework for diplomatic engagement on Jerusalem or indeed on any of the basket of “final status” issues that had engaged the parties for decades—ripped open an inviting vacuum for Trump’s disruptive brand of diplomacy.
This new era confers a premium on Trump’s support for and encouragement of unilateral Israeli moves. It establishes Washington as overtly sabotaging an international consensus that, however inadequate, had been forged over many decades. And it blows a debilitating hole in the moribund Arab Peace Initiative, which proposed recognition of Palestinian statehood as a price for diplomatic recognition. It also exposes an Arab and Palestinian incapacity to do more than proclaim support for the consensus that the U.S. has now shattered.
Palestinians will find no comfort in the boilerplate condemnations heard around the world, nor will they be assuaged by Washington’s vacuous assertion that the Trump declaration on Jerusalem does not prejudge the shape of a diplomatic solution. Balfour, too, promised that Palestinian prospects would not be prejudiced by its support for Zionism, and we all know how that turned out.
At times the Trump administration seems to playing chess with itself, and losing. At an April 30, 2018 press conference in Amman, newly minted secretary of state Mike Pompeo suggested:
When the president announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he also announced that the United States is not taking a position on boundaries or borders, and will support a two-state solution if the parties agree to it. The specific boundaries of Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem remain subject to negotiation between those parties. The United States continues to support the status quo with regard to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, and as Vice President Pence reaffirmed just in January here in Amman, we are committed to continuing to respect Jordan’s special role as the custodian of those holy sites in Jerusalem. We will continue to work for peace in the great hope of offering the best outcome for both the Israeli and Palestinian people.
The decision of the Trump administration to break with decades of U.S. policy on Jerusalem is of a piece with its broader repudiation of the failed efforts of its predecessors—on Jerusalem, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and beyond.
The Trump decision leaves Israel and Palestine where it found them—combatants on an unequal battlefield. But Jerusalem is not simply an arena where conflicting visions of the future compete, nor is it only a dusty museum important more for what has happened in the past than what will be in the future.
Palestinians who live in Jerusalem wage a lopsided battle against a government prejudiced against their well-being as Palestinians no less than as citizens of the city. Israel, as a matter of national policy, constrains and complicates their development as the mirror image of the policies that fortify its claim to rule the city.
Sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount is without question an important issue, but the very sustainability of the presumptive Palestinian capital of East Jerusalem—an area that today is little more than a moribund collection of isolated neighborhoods—is no less important to the viability of a healthy and vibrant Arab presence in the city. How long can an Arab Jerusalem survive—even one defined as the capital of Palestine—if all that it has to commend it are an impoverished minority and the crumbling relics of a long lost history?
Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. The above essay is part of broader research in an upcoming paper for the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA).