Despite Israel setting its capital in the undisputed western part of the city when the state was established 70 years ago, the U.S. and nearly all other countries placed their embassies in Tel Aviv because of the United Nations decision to treat Jerusalem as a “corpus separatum,” a separate area that should be governed by the international community. The U.S. rectifying its historic mistake now is indeed cause for Israel to celebrate—just not for the reasons Trump has stated.
Trump’s December 6 announcement of the new U.S. policy on Jerusalem emphasized that he had made this decision for two reasons. One was that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital acknowledged the reality on the ground: Israel’s major governmental institutions, including the Knesset and the High Court, are located in Jerusalem, as are the residences of the president and prime minister. The other reason, which Trump repeatedly returned to during the course of his remarks, was that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would advance the peace process and make a permanent status agreement between the two sides easier. Since then, the president has insisted multiple times that he has “taken Jerusalem off the table,” implying that Jerusalem is no longer a disputed issue between the parties and that the two sides can now move on to resolving the other final status issues, such as security, borders, and refugees.
Yet these repeated claims have an Alice in Wonderland quality to them; it is obvious that nothing could be further from the observable truth. Trump’s Jerusalem announcement took nothing off the table; in fact, it did precisely the opposite. By loudly and forcefully recognizing Israel’s rightful claim and connection to Jerusalem but not recognizing that Palestinians have their own claim and connection to the city as well, Trump elevated the Jerusalem problem to heights heretofore unachieved. The move infuriated the Palestinians, prompting them not only to disengage from the nascent peace process being led by Kushner and the U.S. envoy Jason Greenblatt, but to boycott Trump administration officials entirely and demand that the U.S. no longer be the sole principal mediator between the two sides. Any progress that the U.S. might have made and any goodwill that Kushner and Greenblatt might have engendered on their repeated listening tours to the region was swept away.
The tragedy is that it did not have to be this way. Because Jerusalem is divided into western and eastern halves and has few neighborhoods that are truly integrated between Jews and Arabs, the city can actually serve as two independent capitals without having to engage in the complicated drawing of borders and land swaps that characterize proposed solutions to the West Bank. Setting aside the one square kilometer of the Old City, what makes Jerusalem so tricky is not the geography or demography of the city itself, but the emotional resonance it has for everyone involved. Acknowledging the competing claims to Jerusalem would have been a simple and relatively cost-free move that would have dispelled each side’s myth that Jerusalem is a zero-sum game. Had Trump unequivocally declared American recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while just as unequivocally declaring that the U.S. looks forward to one day placing its embassy to an independent Palestine in East Jerusalem, then he would have indeed been bringing everyone one step closer to peace while also standing up for Israel’s legitimacy and historic rights.