Written by: Sam Alhadeff
In President Trump’s State of the Union address last month, he reminded the world of one of his landmark foreign policy accomplishments from his first year: recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. A lot has been made of the decision. Trump’s supporters have praised his move for fulfilling a campaign promise. Others consider the move to be a recognition of reality. Some have talked about Israel’s right to self-determine its own capital. They claim that other nations’ failures to allow Israel to choose its own capital in Jerusalem represents anti-Semitism worldwide. Others still have drawn attention to the fact Congress passed a law in 1995 declaring Jerusalem the undivided capital of Israel and appropriating money to relocate the American embassy there.
Each of these arguments certainly hold some merit. Campaign promises are meant to be promises, so it makes sense to follow through with them. Presidents Bush and Obama both promised to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel during their respective campaigns but did not do so. There is also some validity in the “bigoted double standard” of others who allow other countries, but not Israel, to determine their own capital. The 1995 law at the center of the controversy was passed by Congress over President Clinton’s veto. Trump is the first president not to use the biannual waiver which allowed presidents to postpone official recognition and not move the embassy.
Where these and many other arguments miss the point is in the belief that recognizing Jerusalem as the capital will help Israel achieve long-term peace and stability. This declaration will do the exact opposite as it adds yet another barrier to an already tense peace process. Many critics of the president’s decision have highlighted the potential violence that could arise from such a move. They argue that recognizing Jerusalem is an unnecessary provocation of the Palestinian people and other Arab neighbors. Although some still argue the worst is yet to come, the overall pro-Palestinian response was largely contained and relatively little violence occurred, making it less of a problem than people thought. Others have criticized the decision for being polarizing, not only in the Middle East but internationally as well. A few weeks after Trump’s statements, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution denouncing the move. The resolution passed 128 to 9 with 35 abstentions, illustrating how divisive Trump’s decision truly was. Nevertheless, this was just a General Assembly resolution, which are largely toothless.
More problematically, by officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital Trump has forfeited America’s place as the mediator in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Peace negotiations need a neutral arbiter to mediate between tense parties and find common ground, and this has been even more the case throughout the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The United States served as the neutral party in the Camp David Accords, for example, and Norway facilitated the Oslo Accords. For any negotiation between Israel and Palestine to find a peaceful settlement – especially considering the tension between the two sides –a third party needs to get involved. Up until Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the United States filled that role. The reality is that Jerusalem will be the toughest part of any peace deal. By recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and planning to move the U.S. embassy there, Trump has, from a Palestinian perspective, already demonstrated bias in the situation.
The United States is really the only viable neutral party, especially as far as pro-Israel advocates ought to be concerned. Very few other countries have an interest in spending money and time to resolve a conflict that does not have a dramatic impact on their domestic and foreign policies. It is also untenable for many other countries in the region to negotiate any settlement, given their previous and current resentment toward Israel. Russia and China may get involved, but they are both untrustworthy as negotiating partners and unideal as arbiters from the U.S. perspective. European countries have indicated interest in working towards a resolution but, as evidenced by Britain, France, and Germany’s votes in favor of General Assembly resolutions condemning Israel, these countries have moved more towards isolating Israel than building the conditions for a peace agreement.
For its own part, the United States had purposefully positioned itself as the neutral third party for these negotiations. While it is true the United States has given substantial amounts of money to Israel including a $38 billion military aid deal in 2016, the United States has also given hundreds of millions, among other funding, in relief aid to Palestine (which President Trump is cutting, further alienating Palestinian leaders). Rhetorically and in action, past administrations have been unabashed supporters of Israel without threatening their amicable relationship with the Palestinian authorities. As previously stated, Clinton, Bush, and Obama all used the national security waiver every six months to avoid recognizing Jerusalem for fear of alienating Palestinian leadership. They have also pushed for several rounds of peace deals and have pressured both sides to reduce tensions.
Ironically, the people who advocated for Trump to recognize Jerusalem are those who most desire a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Israel. However, the United States, while imperfect, was the only party with the interest, commitment, and at least rhetorical impartiality to mediate peace between Israel and Palestine. The biggest problem with Trump’s decision, therefore, is that it has sacrificed, or at the very least seriously injured, our valuable position as a mediator in this conflict.