The move was clearly welcome and the announcement was certainly dramatic. But US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the requisite embassy move were largely symbolic – and by the admission of his own administration, had no impact on Washington’s long-standing position that the fate of the holy city will have to be negotiated directly between Israelis and Palestinians.
The Americans said that Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital, in whole or in part, is simply a reality and would continue to be so. And realities must be the basis for future negotiations, they added.
What does this tell us, then, about Trump’s upcoming reciprocal move for the Palestinians, previewed on Tuesday night at a rally in West Virginia?
“You know what, in the negotiation, Israel will have to pay a higher price because they won a very big thing – but I took it off the table,” Trump told the crowd, speaking of the Jerusalem decision. “They could never get past the fact of Jerusalem becoming the capital. Now it’s off the table – there’s nothing to negotiate. But they’ll get something very good ‘cause it’s their turn next. We’ll see what happens.”
Like the Israelis, Palestinians want of the Americans both symbolic acts – such as recognition of east Jerusalem as their own future capital, recognition of a Palestinian state or, at minimum, an embrace of the two-state solution – as well as tangible actions, such as aid and investment commitments.
But Trump’s Middle East peace team has given no indication that it is prepared to concede on either, removing all reference to an independent Palestinian entity in US State Department language, to an Israeli occupation of the West Bank or to Palestinian refugee claims. It has slashed aid to UN bodies related to the Palestinian cause and threatened major cuts to the Palestinian Authority itself.
Privately, members of the peace team do acknowledge that Israel’s permanent presence in the West Bank – both its military presence as well as the continued growth of settlements – is a hindrance to peace. So Trump might push the Israelis on this front in some way.
But he has already directed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “hold back” on settlement activity and to restrict building to existing settlement footprints – loose guidelines that the Israeli government has barely followed as it is. And even if Trump were to take a harder stance, it would only bring him in line with past administrations, all of which have agreed on the corrosive nature of the settlement enterprise and publicly admonished Israel for it.
Trump could state that Israel must choose between one of two future realities: a unitary, undemocratic state, or two states for two peoples requiring an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Since his peace team says it will negotiate based on “realities,” Trump may “take off the table” a dream of the Israeli Right that they can have their cake and eat it, too.
But Trump has given no real clues as to his plans. To quote one of his favorite refrains: We’ll see what happens.