Donald Trump always said he wasn’t going to follow the rules.
But he also said that he was going to do everything in his power to broker what he called the “ultimate deal”: a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. The odds of that happening on his watch seemed to slip further from sight Thursday as the region reacted to Trump’s controversial declaration recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The unwritten rules advising against such a move were put in place half a century ago, after Israel seized control of Jordanian-ruled East Jerusalem during the Six Day War. This playbook for presidents became all the more important after Israel and the Palestinians entered into a peace process in 1993, which promised to deal with Jerusalem and five other thorny issues such as borders and refugees in “final status” talks.
Those talks never quite got off the ground — or were derailed by the intransigence of one side or the other, depending on whose narrative you buy — and so America’s role has been to encourage the parties to act in moderation and avoid steps that would prejudice or preempt the possibility of getting back to the negotiating table.
But Pres. Trump has never been a great fan of moderation. And now, with the encouragement of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he’s made a risky foreign policy gambit that he figures will go over well with his base. Trump’s announcement was a move intended to decouple Jerusalem’s status from the peace process itself, but it handed to Israel what previous administrations had expected it to earn, in the form of a historic territorial compromise with the Palestinians. It has been widely condemned across the Arab world, and in Europe.
“We are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders,” Trump said Wednesday. “Those questions are up to the parties involved. The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides.”
The problem is that for Palestinians, these things cannot coexist. For them, there is no universe in which an American president gets to declare that he recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and in the same breath purport to be a fair and honest broker. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said late Wednesday that the U.S. could no longer be a mediator in peace negotiations. And his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, says that Trump’s announcement signals the end of the two-state solution.
“Now is the time to transform the struggle to one of one state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea,” Erekat told Haaretz. That is a worrying prospect to many Israelis, aware that demographic trends would soon make Jewish people a minority in a one-state democracy with equal rights for all.
Palestinian protesters already began to clash with Israeli police in hours after the announcement late Wednesday; demonstrations in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan took place as well. The unrest is predicted to intensify on Thursday and Friday, as heavy rains taper off and tensions soar. Palestinian leaders called for three “days of rage” in reaction to Trump’s statement.
“Violence is predicted, but I predict a Palestinian dissociation from the fraudulent peace process,” says Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee. “If it’s exposed for what it is and collapses, it’s not necessarily bad, but it will also shatter whatever is left of US credibility. The issue of Palestine has become a litmus test for human rights and the US administration has failed horribly,” adds Barghouti, speaking via Skype from his home in Acre, a predominantly Arab city on Israel’s northern coast.
Barghouti urges Palestinians to find a way to communicate their disappointment without violence. “I hope that many creative and nonviolent protests will take place. When we talk about intifada,” he says, referring to the two previous Palestinian uprisings, “people are expecting blood. But that’s not the only kind of intifada.”
To Israelis, things look quite different. As Israel inches towards its 70th birthday, it still craves recognition from its neighbors, and that includes what it sees as its rightful capital. Deputy Prime Minister Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, called it “immensely significant for us on the emotional stage” in a conference call with reporters, citing the fact that Americans born in Jerusalem – including his own dual-national children – will no longer have U.S. passports that don’t mention which country that’s in, as if Jerusalem is a free-floating entity.
Even the new leader of the opposition Labour Party, Avi Gabbay, welcomed Trump’s move, but said it should accompany steps towards peace. Although his Labour predecessors who reached various interim peace deals with the Palestinians in the 1990s spoke openly about the need for compromise and shared sovereignty in the city, those terms have all but disappeared from mainstream Israeli politics, which have shifted right.
“Israelis never questioned the fact that Jerusalem is their capital and always found it bizarre that the entire world played the game of relating to Tel Aviv as the capital,” explains Gershon Baskin, an academic, peace activist and author of a new book called In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine. “When foreign ambassadors give their letters of accreditation to the President of Israel, they do it in Jerusalem. Foreign Ministers and heads of state all come to Jerusalem.”
With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why many Israelis see the move as being overdue, and not necessarily fatal to the peace process. While most Israelis stay out of the East Jerusalem neighborhoods that Palestinians view as occupied — along with much of the international community — polls have indicated that they’re open to turning those neighborhoods over to Palestinian rule in a final agreement.
Oren suggests that the Palestinian leadership should see this as an opportunity to deal with an American president bent on reaching deal to solve this conflict, demonstrated by the amount of energy and resources this administration has dedicated to the issue thus far. “The Palestinians have not negotiated with us for eight years now. The last round of negotiations, which I was involved in, went for about eight hours, and the Palestinians left the table,” Oren says. “Should the Palestinians make the right decision of coming back to the negotiating table, the president will also have leverage over the Israeli side, because we’ll be asked to do some difficult things in those negotiations.”
Others question the motivation behind the move. “Jerusalem has support across the Israeli political spectrum, but having it recognized now by the U.S. is not something that’s been a high priority,” says Dr. Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution. “I think Trump was driven by domestic political considerations rather than foreign policy.”
It seems, she notes, in direct contradiction with the buzz the administration has tried to create around a breakthrough in the pipeline. “If you have peace proposal, why throw a wrench in it? It’s like tossing a grenade at the problem. And while there’s a lot of drama around coming up with a solution, it’s still not clear to me that they have anything substantive to propose.”