Capital Crime: Why Trump was Wrong to Recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital

President Trump prompted fierce disagreement with his December 2017 announcement that the U.S. would move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Some were overjoyed by what they viewed to be a long-overdue move, while others were devastated by the potential damage to the peace process. In his speech, Trump offered three justifications for the move, claiming (1) it would advance the peace process, (2) it was a simple “recognition of reality,” and (3) it was “the right thing to do.” But none of these justifications stand up to scrutiny. Trump’s decision to move the embassy massively disrupted the delicate peace process and dealt a potentially fatal blow to the United States’ credibility as a mediator, leaving Palestinians to deal with the often deadly consequences.

“Advance the peace process”

Instead of advancing the peace process, Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has significantly damaged America’s credibility as a mediator. The U.S. built up credibility by hosting the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt and the 1993 signing of the First Oslo Accord between Israel and Palestine. The Oslo Accords deemed the status of Jerusalem a “final status issue,” meaning that, due to its sensitivity, it would be addressed after negotiations on other issues had concluded. That has yet to happen. Both Israel and Palestine claim Jerusalem as their capital, but Trump recognized only the Israeli claim, displaying clear bias. For Palestine, the Trump administration’s peace plan offered the small town of Abu Dis. Abu Dis has a population less than that of Heber City and lies nearly two-and-a-half miles from the Old City of Jerusalem—a forty minute drive, thanks to the separation wall. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, rejected the offer calling it “the slap of the century.” With Trump’s decision on a final status issue, Abbas announced the death of the Oslo Accords. As recognition of Israel’s statehood was a condition of the Oslo Accords, the P.L.O. voted to withdraw that recognition, a massive setback to the peace process. By taking action on a final status issue, Trump betrayed Palestinians’ trust, tarnished American objectivity, and set the peace process back twenty-five years.

“Recognition of reality”

Trump’s claim that recognizing Jerusalem as the capital was simply a “recognition of reality” implies that Jerusalem is already the de facto capital of Israel. The facts disagree. Unanimity in the international community is rare, but not a single nation on Earth maintained an embassy in Jerusalem before Trump’s announcement. Following the announcement, the United Nations General Assembly voted 128-9 to condemn Trump’s action. Some complain that no other country’s chosen capital is subject to such scrutiny. That’s because no other country has chosen a capital city in disputed territory. No one is saying Kansas can’t claim Topeka as its capital—but it can’t claim the entirety of Kansas City, which straddles Kansas and Missouri, as its “eternal undivided capital,” as the Israelis claim about Jerusalem.  In calling this recognition a “reality,” Trump endorses Israel’s strategy of expansionism, whereby Israel builds on Palestinian land then claims that land as its own in a “recognition of reality.” Imagine planting a garden in a neighbor’s yard, then claiming ownership of the land and telling the upset neighbor to just “recognize reality.” Within a month of Trump’s speech, Israel’s ruling Likud Party’s Central Committee adopted a resolution to annex illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Trump’s “recognition of reality” is better described as an attempt to create a new reality.

“The right thing to do”

Trump’s final justification for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem—that it was “the right thing to do”—reveals his true allegiances. Trump’s claim betrays his belief in Israel’s position of moral superiority—that Israel is the good guy and Palestine is the bad guy. Putting aside the near-total lack of moral high ground left in the conflict, Trump’s acknowledgment is unacceptable coming from a potential mediator. While Trump pays lip service to “helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides,” it is what he doesn’t say that gives him away. He never says the embassy is being moved to West Jerusalem (the Jewish part), and he never validates Palestinians’ claim to East Jerusalem (the Palestinian part). It would have been simple for Trump to include more balanced language, but he didn’t. With such clear bias, Trump can never hope to broker a lasting peace acceptable to both sides.

Many supporters of Israel see no problem in an American president’s bias toward Israel. Israel is, after all, an important ally in the Middle East. But supporters of Israel must understand the corresponding Palestinian frustration and helplessness. Over the past few decades, the U.S. has attempted to remain an honest broker and a suitable mediator for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by maintaining (ostensibly) neutral foreign policy, especially on sensitive questions like the final status of Jerusalem. Trump’s announcement confirms Palestinian fears that the U.S. never really cared about its interests or resolving the conflict. By abdicating its role as chief mediator and throwing its considerable weight behind Israel, which already holds most of the negotiating power, the U.S. condemns Palestinians to continue living as second-class citizens. Unchecked by America, Israel will continue to deprive Palestinians of the very rights and protections Israel was established to provide for the Jewish people.

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Nick Hafen

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