The relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Monday may have fulfilled a campaign promise made by Donald J. Trump, and it may please Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other hardliners in his government. But what does it actually accomplish? The most obvious effect is to anger Palestinians and their allies — as the deaths of at least 55 protesters at the Gaza border made apparent.
The bloodshed and rising body count should have surprised no one. The leader of Hamas had called for an uprising in response to the U.S. decision, and even more moderate Muslim voices have expressed disappointment that the U.S. would abandon its role as peace negotiator. In all the speeches given Monday morning, there was never a sufficient explanation from Jared Kushner or anyone else representing Washington as to why: Why depart from the position taken by every previous U.S. president that the embassy’s move to Jerusalem (promised by law since the 1990s) needed to be settled first in negotiations? Was it to prove that the U.S. is an ally to Israel? Surely, that was never in doubt. Is this now going to convince Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to come to the negotiating table? Not likely. It’s just going to harden feelings in the Arab world against the United States.
What did the Trump administration get for this concession? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. You can criticize Barack Obama for not achieving peace with his tougher approach on Israel, but at least he held on to that bargaining chip. The U.S. might not have been a neutral arbiter — its support of Israel has always been strong and rightly so — but now it’s credibility as a pro-Israel partner willing to push its ally toward politically unpopular choices is diminished, too.
Might President Trump support some formulation that grants the Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem? Perhaps. The administration hasn’t offered a definitive position on that possibility. The State Department has said that there’s still been no final determination of where the U.S. believes Israel’s sovereign boundaries should be. Nevertheless, if the U.S. is regarded as completely in the tank for Israel, what role can it have in even promoting that possibility? If the U.S. wants to support Palestinian self-rule and a two-state solution, the relocation of the embassy to West Jerusalem would have been a nice reward to Israel for accepting that prospect. Now, it’s gone and U.S. credibility is diminished. Who benefits from that?
The president’s supporters make several claims. First, that this is an affirmation of the U.S.-Israel special relationship (which wasn’t necessary) or that the president is embracing reality much as he did when he withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal (which also diminished peace prospects). It’s the John Bolton school of foreign policy that suggests that anyone who holds a contrary view to this administration is in the wrong and thus stands in the way of peace. Get it? Moving the embassy helps the peace process because it strips away the pretense that anything else is possible.
Maybe the apple cart needed to be upset. Maybe bold action will inspire leaders to reconsider their current entrenched positions, but we seriously doubt it. President Trump’s “boldness” in foreign policy would be a lot more convincing if it didn’t always seem to involve a sop to his political base — in this case, evangelical Christians who support the move, at least in part, as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Polls show average Americans are split along party lines on the subject with American Jews generally opposing the decision.
The best thing that can be said about the relocation is that it will likely take years to complete. Perhaps before the move is finalized, a new administration can return the focus of U.S. policy in the region toward peaceful coexistence and not on pleasing special interest groups at home. That doesn’t mean the embassy can ever go back to Tel Aviv — the politics of that would be fraught, too — but at least Mr. Trump’s departure from the stage could be the first step toward healing this particular wound.
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