With a brief speech and the stroke of a pen, President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his promise to relocate the U.S. embassy radically altered 70 years of bipartisan policy in the Middle East. Despite the naïve optimism, he expressed on Wednesday, no one will be the better for this move, not the United States and not even Israel.
Let’s be clear: the functional capital of Israel — the seat of its parliament (the Knesset), the prime minister’s residence and government ministries — is Jerusalem. But like most things in the Middle East, the reality is not so simple. Perhaps no city in the world carries more symbolic weight than the City of Peace, where any change to the status quo can cause an international incident.
The 1947 United Nations resolution that partitioned British Mandate Palestine into Jewish and Arab states (which the United States endorsed) defined Jerusalem as an international city to be under United Nations, not Jewish or Arab control. The Jews accepted partition and the Arabs rejected it, and when the ensuing war ended in 1949, Jerusalem was divided for the first time in its 3,000 year history. Like Berlin in 1945, Jerusalem’s boundaries were defined by where the fighting stopped. Jordan captured and annexed the eastern half, which included the Old City’s Abrahamic holy sites (Western Wall, Al-Aksa Mosque and Church of the Holy Sepulcher). The new Jewish state included the city’s modern, western half, and Israel established its capital there. The United States set up its embassy in Tel Aviv.
At any time since Israel’s founding in 1948, an American president could have recognized Jerusalem as its capital and relocated the U.S. embassy to the western half. None did. Jerusalem may be the millennia-old spiritual center of the Jewish people and the functional capital of Israel, but not granting that city official U.S. recognition as such has been the political decision of every Democratic and Republican administration since Truman’s. Following the 1993 Oslo peace accords, Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama all declared that Jerusalem’s final status must be determined via Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. This was the official U.S. policy, until Wednesday.
Trump’s policy shift will likely diminish, not enhance, Israel’s physical security. It will undermine U.S. relations with key Arab and Muslim allies, many of whom are fighting ISIS, and also threaten our own security by enhancing terrorist recruitment. Trump is dispatching Vice President Mike Pence to work with Arab allies “to defeat radicalism.” But coming in the wake of Trump’s unapologetic retweeting of anti-Muslim videos and his renewed Muslim travel ban, the timing of the Jerusalem announcement could not be worse. It will feed into jihadist claims that the new president is waging a war on Islam.
Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without giving anything to the Palestinians will not jumpstart the stalled peace process, as Trump seems to suggest. It will inflame tensions between Israel and the Palestinians and alienate Arab states at a time when, ironically, a de facto anti-Iran alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia was beginning to flourish. Trump’s Jerusalem policy is also a propaganda coup for Sunni jihadists like Al-Qaeda and ISIS as well as Shiite Hezbollah, all of whom oppose our Arab allies as well as Israel.
For someone who claims to be a great deal-maker, Trump blew an opportunity. Instead of handing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a gift of historic magnitude with no strings attached, he could have held back the embassy move to incentivize Israeli concessions toward peace. And if he really wanted to energize negotiations between the two parties, he could have announced that the United States is willing to locate a second embassy in Jerusalem — for a future state of Palestine. Instead, we will now face the global blowback of Trump’s ill-timed and reckless policy shift.
The author, Mr. Atlas is a professor of political science and director of The Richard G. Lugar Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian University.