President Donald Trump ran on a campaign of America First, but so far, he has governed on Trump First—particularly when it comes to foreign policy. On no issue is that more apparent than his decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and set in motion plans to eventually move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv.
“Today we finally acknowledge the obvious—that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” Trump declared Wednesday from the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room, noting that the city is the seat of Israel’s government—home to its legislature, Supreme Court, and prime minister and presidential residences. But here’s another reality worth acknowledging: While other presidents have wanted to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, they knew that it needed to be done in the context of a final peace agreement with Palestinian consent; otherwise, it could incite violence, even, quite possibly, war. So why does Trump feel compelled to do this now?
After a difficult first year in office, with few accomplishments and more than a few scandals, Trump wanted to please evangelical supporters, who comprise much of his base, on an issue they care deeply about. “While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver,” he said in his speech. “Today, I am delivering.” It was no accident that Vice President Pence, a hero to that constituency, stood by his side during his announcement, in a room adorned with Christmas decorations.
“Is he doing this because of domestic politics? I think there you’ve got a real possibility. Obviously, this is a president who has catered mostly to his base,” said Shibley Telhami, a Palestinian American scholar and professor at the University of Maryland. “This is a president who has shown, over and over, that he’s more interested in what’s good for Donald Trump.”
But with this decision, Trump is not exactly exemplifying the art of the diplomatic deal.
“What we know is that he’s not doing it because it would be good for America’s interests in the Middle East,” Telhami added. “How do we know this? Because he’s doing this well before he announces the parameters of his plan that’s supposed to be the deal of the century among Israelis and Palestinians. It’s bound to be highly controversial, hard to sell, made impossible to sell under any circumstances and this obviously jeopardizes that possibility.”
Ambassador Dennis Ross, a former Middle East adviser to President Barack Obama, characterized the White House’s argument for this recognition as “removing an ambiguity and creating a kind of honesty” about the de facto status of Jerusalem. “But the fact that all of our allies and all of our Arab partners have called on him not to do this, it’s hard to see how it necessarily advances our interests,” he said. “What it does is it reflects something he wanted to do. That’s clear.”
It’s a recurring temptation for American presidents to think they will be the ones to bring peace to the Middle East. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama believed that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict was the root of all Middle East instability. They believed that if you solve this problem, you’ll solve a lot of other problems. Over the course of the last eight years, however, a number of events transpired that debunked that theory: The Arab uprisings of 2011, the civil war in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State. These had nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Instead, they revealed that Arabs in the Middle East were more enraged with their own abysmal leadership and consumed by their own religious and sectarian disputes. Israel–Palestine just wasn’t as important to them.
But then Trump stepped into the Oval Office and called an Israeli–Palestinian peace accord one of his “highest priorities.” He tasked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with trying to renew peace negotiations; invited both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House within his first months in office; and travelled to Israel and the West Bank after just four months as president.
For all the time, energy, and capital he was devoting to resolving this issue, it made sense when, in May, he signed a waiver delaying for six months the U.S. Embassy in Israel’s relocation to Jerusalem—a decision forced on him by a 1995 law requiring the president to transfer the U.S. mission to the holy city, but granting him the prerogative to postpone it for six months at a time on national security grounds. Every president has repeatedly exercised that right for the last 22 years. So, too, did Trump. There was no reason, after all, to infuriate the Palestinians and roil the rest of the Middle East with an inflammatory move that was sure to instigate controversy over a sensitive final-status issue, one of the key matters needed to be resolved to end the conflict, just as he was embarking on an uphill quest to succeed where his predecessors failed and rescue the moribund peace process.
Besides the priority most presidents place on promoting and maintaining stability in the world’s most turbulent region, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital right now, and under these conditions, makes little sense coming from the author of The Art of the Deal. “I don’t believe in giving away things for free,” Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator for multiple administrations, Democrat and Republican alike, told me last week. If Trump has something that Israel ostensibly really wants, then it is something he could use to extract a concession from the Israelis down the road as part of peace negotiations. Why just give it away now, for nothing in return? “This isn’t a transaction as much as it is an effort to make a point,” Miller said.
Trump will try to alleviate the damage caused by this decision, which will upend decades of U.S. foreign policy and undoubtedly create the perception the United States favors Israel in the conflict. “We are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the final boundaries or the resolution of contested parties. Those questions are up to the parties involved,” Trump said Wednesday, adding that he would support a two-state solution, if agreed to by both sides.
That is nothing new. “I’m looking at two states and one state, and I like the one that both sides like,” he said in February. The president also did not couple his announcement with assurances that a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem will be in pre-1967 West Jerusalem—the part of the city that was Israeli before the Six-Day War, and which all viable peace plans have proposed that Israel retain.
But these moves likely won’t be enough to calm rising tensions. “Moving the U.S. Embassy is a dangerous step that provokes the feelings of Muslims around the world,” King Salman of Saudi Arabia told Trump in a phone call on Tuesday. King Abdullah II of Jordan similarly warned him that doing so would have “dangerous repercussions.” Shortly after Trump’s call with Arab leaders, Palestinian protestors already took to Bethlehem’s Manger Square and began burning pictures of the American president. One sign read: “Trump: Keep your populism away from Jerusalem.”
In the Tuesday briefing with reporters, a senior administration official said, “The president will reiterate how committed he is to peace. While we understand how some parties might react, we are still working on our plan which is not yet ready. We have time to get it right and see how people feel after this news is processed over the next period of time.” But that’s precisely why it was a mistake for Trump was to make this decision before having a peace plan ready: It robs the process of a period of calm. By the time Trump’s proposal for an accord is drafted—Kushner said this weekend it would come eventually, but gave no timetable—it may prove impossible to get both Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.
But perhaps that’s the point, despite Trump’s assurances Wednesday that this move does not diminish his commitment to achieving Middle East peace. “The president may have really already written off the deal,” said Telhami, the UMD professor, “and is looking for a way out.”