Trump’s New Jerusalem Policy: Early Assessment

The full implications of President Trump’s proclamation declaring U.S recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and his announcement of the commencement of the process to move the U.S. embassy there, remain to be seen. It is far too early to fully determine what will be the diplomatic, political, and security implications of this American policy shift. Likewise, it is not remotely clear yet how this asymmetric recognition will impact a peace process that is already under distress, if not for all intents and purposes moribund.  In the coming days and weeks we will continue to examine and report on all of the implications of Trump’s policy shift, as new developments unfold. Some early observations:

The Jerusalem recognition is divorced from one key reality: When Trump claimed that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was just acknowledging reality, he denied the reality of the 320,000 Palestinians living under an increasingly aggressive occupation in East Jerusalem, and ignored and undermined Palestinian claims to a capital in that part of the city. In so doing, Trump’s statement has given support and comfort to the Government of Israel in its pathologic denial of the occupation, of the Palestinian narrative, and of the simple fact that Jerusalem’s status is a matter of dispute, not merely between Israel and the Palestinians, but with respect to the entire international community. It also sent a message to the government of Israel that there is no problem with it seizing land in violation of international law, since, with time, such seizures will be recognized and sanctioned. Trump’s mentioning of U.S. support for the two-state solution “if agreed to by the parties” was not, as some believed, a softening of the new policy announcement, but rather a statement that in effect granted Israel an absolute right of veto over Palestinian claims. In addition, Trump Jerusalem Declaration sent a message to Arab Christians – in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and beyond – that the Trump Administration has no concern for the plight of Christians actually living in the Holy Land. The blowback from that last message is being felt keenly by Vice President Mike Pence, a devout Evangelical Christian and reportedly a strong backer of the Jerusalem policy shift. On his upcoming tour of the Middle East, Pence is now being boycotted in Egypt by Coptic Christians and snubbed by Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem, and apparently he won’t be going Bethlehem.

The effort to get the international community on board is not working (so far): Already, it is clear that both Netanyahu and Trump will try to encourage other nations to follow in America’s footsteps in order to shift policy globally and create a sense of consensus around Trump’s declaration. Netanyahu is already apparently fantasizing that the world will do so, stating earlier this week in Brussels that “all or most EU countries will move their embassies to Jerusalem, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital” – a notion that was emphatically rejected by EU foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini. While it is true that, to a limited extent, Netanyahu and Trump have managed to find some fault lines in Europe on the issue of the recognition — the Czech Republic, for example, followed Trump’s example partially by declaring that it “recognizes Jerusalem to be in practice the capital of Israel in the borders of the demarcation line from 1967”, and Hungary prevented an EU endorsement of Mogherini’s statement condemning the Trump move — overall reactions from Europe were almost unanimous in condemning the proclamation, in reasserting that a solution to the Jerusalem problem can only come through direct negotiations between the two parties, and in reiterating that there is no alternative to the two-state solution.

The ability of Sunni Arab states to back the U.S. is severely constrained: Regionally, while some believe that key Sunni states are ready to sell out the Palestinian cause for the sake of an alliance with Israel against Iran, these same states are not in a position where they can casually or openly forsake Jerusalem, as their public opinion will not stand for leaders being complicit on such issue. The emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held this week in Istanbul, organized to coordinate a unified position on Jerusalem, is telling. That summit concluded with the OIC denouncing the U.S. move and calling on countries of the world to “recognise the State of Palestine and East Jerusalem as its occupied capital.” Perhaps even more telling is the statement by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, in the context of that summit, in support of East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. Likewise, the visit of an interfaith group from Bahrain, which came to Israel with the support of Bahrain’s leadership in the days immediately after Trump’s proclamation, was a perfect illustration of the limits of such normalization when it come to Jerusalem. The delegation was met with great hostility from the Palestinians, and was refused entry to Al Aqsa mosque by the Waqf.

It’s more important than ever to keep our eyes on the ball:  The immediate and most pressing concern should be that President Trump’s move will further encourage Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government to act aggressively in Jerusalem, in order both to demonstrate Israel’s exclusive ownership over the entire city – broadly defined – and to expand and consolidate that control, through settlement activities, legislation, demolition of Palestinian properties and bold moves at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The Israeli government and Jerusalem municipality were already very active in advancing aggressive policies and legislation regarding Jerusalem before Trump’s proclamation; that proclamation will be seen as providing both American legitimacy and encouragement for such initiatives.