The Trump Administration Says It's Bowing to 'Simple Truth' on Jerusalem

But the reality will be much more complicated.

Ammar Awad / Reuters

President Trump will announce Wednesday that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and is moving the U.S. Embassy to the holy city from Tel Aviv, a process that could take “years,” senior administration officials said Tuesday. But the announcement will not, they said, have a bearing on the disputed status of the city or where it fits in with negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on a peace deal that in theory would result in a Palestinian state.

“This does not mean this will happen tomorrow,” a senior administration official said of the embassy move in a briefing to reporters. “It’s a practical impossibility to move the embassy tomorrow. ... It will take time to find a site, address security concerns, design a new facility, fund a new facility ... and build it. So this is not an instantaneous process.” The official cited the example of the planned move of the U.S. Embassy in London from Grosvenor Square. That eight-year process is expected to be completed in early 2018.  The official said the process in Israel would also take “some years” to complete.

That provides a kind of win to the Trump administration: It allows the president to tell his supporters that he is keeping his campaign promise to move the embassy. But it also leaves some convenient ambiguity. A second senior administration official said during the briefing that Trump was still “prepared to support a two-state solution … if agreed to by the two parties,” but said the president “also recognizes that specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations of such an agreement.”

The official added: “While President Trump recognizes that the status of Jerusalem is a highly sensitive issue, he does not think it will be resolved by ignoring the simple truth that Jerusalem is home to Israel’s legislature, its supreme court, the prime minister, and as such is the capital of Israel.”

The issue is contentious because Israelis view Jerusalem as their eternal capital, and Palestinians regard East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state that’s expected to result from any peace deal. The international community views the city that is holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians as disputed and its status subject to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians; all other countries who have diplomatic relations with Israel keep their embassies in Tel Aviv. A third senior administration official said in the briefing that Wednesday’s announcement would not change the U.S. policy that regards East Jerusalem as occupied territory. “The decision … does not change anything with respect to those juridical issues,” the official said.

Perhaps this is creative difference-splitting, but many average Palestinians and Arabs may miss the caveats, and are likely to hear only the president’s remarks about Jerusalem being Israel’s capital. This means even more drama in a region that doesn’t have a shortage of it. As reports of Trump’s planned announcement began to leak out on Tuesday, Hamas, the Palestinian group that governs the Gaza Strip, called for “three days of rage,” and the U.S. State Department urged Americans to avoid Jerusalem’s Old City and parts of the West Bank.

Wednesday’s announcement will also make it more difficult for America’s Arab allies to support an expected U.S.-backed peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians. The decision puts U.S. allies in the West, already at odds with Washington on issues as diverse as climate change, free trade, and migration, in the position of having to yet again break with the country that has led the free world since the end of World War II. More importantly, perhaps, it all but ensures that the U.S. can no longer play the role of mediator in the Middle East, notwithstanding the administration’s assertions to the contrary.

Trump’s decision is in line with a longstanding U.S. law to move the embassy to Jerusalem. Past U.S. presidents have signed a waiver every six months to keep the facility in Tel Aviv, citing security concerns. Trump previously signed the waiver—and administration officials said he will continue to do so in the future unless either the legislation is changed or until the embassy actually does move. News reports in the run-up to the announcement suggested Trump would declare Jerusalem Israel’s capital, but decline to move the embassy. That position was controversial on its own, but Wednesday’s proclamation goes well beyond that.

Trump spent much of Tuesday calling regional leaders to tell them about his impending announcement. The reaction not welcoming. The Palestinians and Jordan said it would all but kill the peace process. Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi envoy to Washington, said it would have a “detrimental impact on the peace process and would heighten tensions in the region.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the move a “red line,” adding that Turkey could “go as far as cutting diplomatic ties with Israel over the issue.” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned against it, adding Germany must “first and foremost describe our positions and in some cases—sometimes vis-á-vis our allies—spell out where the limits of our solidarity are.”

The timing was especially puzzling given that the Trump administration was planning early next year to announce the outline of its new Middle East peace initiative. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, who is in charge of the proposal, offered few details at an event Sunday in Washington. Saudi Arabia, arguably the most influential Arab country, is said to support the plan—even if the Palestinian leadership or the wider Arab public does not. Either way, given the broader regional reaction to Trump’s plan to move the U.S. embassy, the Kushner plan looks all but certain to join the dozen or so Middle East peace initiatives that came before it—the stuff of lost opportunities and Wikipedia entries.

The United States’s standing in the Muslim world, already diminished by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, perceived inaction in Syria and Libya, civilian casualties caused by the nearly two-decade-long war on terrorism, and Trump’s ban on travelers from some Muslim countries, could fall further. Jerusalem is home to the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest in Islam; its status does not change under Wednesday’s announcement, the senior administration officials said. Yet Trump’s decision could spark protests—or violence—in many of the countries that the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims call home. The U.S. State Department warning Tuesday underscored those fears.

There is, of course, nothing to suggest that peace between the Palestinians and Israel is either imminent or possible. Israeli politicians and large segments of the public say they believe they have no partner for peace among the Palestinians. Palestinians, after years of what they see as broken promises by Israel and the international community, are perhaps fatally frustrated. The second intifada might have ended in 2005, but a wave of knife attacks by Palestinians on Israelis resulted in several fatalities and injuries in 2015 and 2016. No attempt to resolve the decades-long dispute between the two sides has come close to succeeding since the 2000 Camp David summit between Ehud Barak, who was then the Israeli prime minister, and Yasser Arafat, then the Palestinian leader. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, like their predecessors, tried, with varying degrees of success, but their attempts ended in failure.

Trump’s unorthodox approach to politics—and foreign policy—and his purported dealmaking prowess was cited by some of his supporters as bolstering his prospects as a peacemaker. As a candidate, Trump himself said he would be “sort of a neutral guy” on the issue. But his actions as president have not borne this out. He nominated David Friedman, the right-wing commentator, as his ambassador to the country; declined to criticize new Israeli settlements in the West Bank; and then said he was “looking at two states and one state” as a solution to perhaps the most vexing diplomatic problem since 1948. His announcement Wednesday could guarantee that neither he nor the United States can ever play the role of peacemaker in the Middle East again; nor is there anyone else in the international community with the standing the United States once enjoyed to at least attempt to bring about a settlement. The Arabs have released details of their own peace plan, but only parts of that initiative have been accepted by Israel—and that too tepidly. Absent an honest broker or a country that tries to play one, the prospect of peace between the two sides appears dim.

“A lot of people say an agreement can’t be made, which is OK, sometimes agreements can’t be made [and they are] not good,” Trump said when he was still a candidate. And he added: “I will give it one hell of a shot.”

He might do well to revisit that idea.