President Donald Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, breaking with decades of U.S. and international policy. Dec. 6, 2017 (Dillon Smith / Chicago Tribune)
As often as the Middle East has been described as a tinder box of impassioned religious views and centuries-held grievances aggravated by dislocation and desperation and requiring only the tiniest spark to inflame unrest, it should not have surprised anyone that President Donald Trump’s mid-week announcement that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and eventually locate its embassy there has already produced violent protests by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with American flags and pictures of Mr. Trump set afire. Given Mr. Trump’s provocative action, this was to be expected.
Here’s the crux of the problem. It’s not that the United States has previously held no interest in recognizing Jerusalem as the “political capital” of Israel; it has for decades. But past U.S. presidents have set their sights on the far more important goal of bringing peace and stability to the region. What to do about Jerusalem has been regarded as an unresolved (and rather complicated and sensitive) element in a potential two-state solution for the future of Israel and a Palestinian state. In ignoring all that history and simply deciding that now is the time to make such a dramatic move — predicated on nothing more than a campaign promise to his constituents — Mr. Trump, the alleged master negotiator, has simply given away a small but potentially vital bit of leverage in future negotiations.
This does not advance U.S. interests. It does not help Israel, as much as it may please Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli political leaders, because it reduces U.S. credibility on the international stage (no other country in the world appears poised to follow suit) and diminishes our ability to broker peace. This is likely why the grown-ups in the Trump cabinet, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, are said to have counseled against it and perhaps why the White House’s former chief bomb thrower, the infernal Stephen Bannon, was cheerleading for it.
Indeed, one of the most remarkable elements in Mr. Trump’s prepared remarks delivered Wednesday was how, after announcing this “long overdue step to advance the peace process,” he backed away from it, warning that the U.S. still supported a two-state solution and that the long-term future of Jerusalem was still to be determined. He also called for calm and moderation and “for the voices of tolerance to prevail over the purveyors of hate.” It was a bit like poking a hornets’ nest and then warning everyone around him not to enrage the hornets further while lecturing the hornets to settle down.
Trump supporters love to see his bull-in-the-china-shop routine, but even they must appreciate that this is the wrong venue for such antics. At the very least, it’s going to put Americans, including diplomats and military personnel living in the region, in danger. At the worst, it’s going to drive Palestinians away from the peace process entirely and embolden the hard-liners who would rather be throwing rocks in an intifada than words around a table. Perhaps the best that can be said of the move is that President Trump has so damaged U.S. diplomacy already and the peace process has become so stagnant — unless the Baltimore area’s quick-to-evict landlord Jared Kushner has achieved some breakthrough about which not a soul has been notified — that the impact may not turn out to be all that great.
Still, we’d be delighted to eat these words. It would be wonderful if tossing a self-serving monkey wrench — a sop to either Christian fundamentalists or Trump donor Sheldon Adelson, take your pick — kick-started peace talks instead of merely relieving President Trump of his obligation to sign yet another waiver to exempt the U.S. from a 1995 law requiring presidents to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. How it will achieve peace is something of a mystery akin to how disavowing the nuclear deal with Iran and the hard-won limits it placed on that country developing atomic weapons will somehow make the world a safer place.
Is this part of the Trump administration’s carefully conceived master plan for advancing the peace process? Even die-hard Trump supporters aren’t making that claim. But give them time. If violence worsens, it will simply be cast as a sign that the U.S. can’t trust Palestinian leadership or perhaps Muslims generally. Pleasing far-right supporters at the next Red State political rally, that’s the only reliable plank of the ad hoc Trump global doctrine.