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The Perils of Giving Israel What It Wants

Trump's decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem without any Israeli concessions makes peace negotiations harder—and may make things tougher for Israel in the long run.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

If President Bill Clinton acted too much like “Israel’s lawyer,” in the famous words of one of his top Middle East peace negotiators, President Barack Obama tried to act more like Israel’s doctor. Whereas Clinton reportedly advocated Israeli ideas in private settings, Obama seemed to believe that inflicting immediate pain could improve the patient’s long-term survivability: hence his very public criticism of Israeli settlements.

President Trump is acting more like Israel’s secretary.

Since taking office, Trump’s policies from day to day have been unpredictable. The only party he has never displeased is Israel’s Likud Party. While trashing the Iran deal certainly falls into that category, the most visible and concrete culmination of that close relationship transpired on Monday, with the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. Trump formally recognized the holy city as Israel’s capital in December, saying the move would propel peace by forcing the Palestinians to “recognize reality.” The immediate fallout, however, suggests the move has materially harmed long-term peace prospects: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has since refused to meet with White House officials, contending the administration has forfeited its right to act as an honest mediator; violence has erupted in Gaza, the latest iteration of a bloody cycle that paralyzes the moral and political imaginations of both sides; and a return to direct Israeli-Palestinian talks seems further away than ever.

On its surface, the launching of a U.S. embassy in pre-1967 West Jerusalem should not be a consequential event. Israel doesn’t need an American president or U.N. Secretary General or anyone to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. It’s the location of the nation’s legislature, Supreme Court, and presidential and prime minister’s residences. Trump’s embassy gambit is noteworthy for other reasons.

Under perfect circumstances, the new U.S. compound would be opened at the conclusion of a two-state peace agreement. Opening it now is jarring—not necessarily because it’s absent a peace process, but because Trump didn’t extract any Israeli concessions or get anything in return for it. He seemed more interested in fulfilling a campaign promise and pleasing his base of evangelical supporters.

The president incorporated language in his Jerusalem proclamation to signal he wasn’t changing the status quo: “We are not taking a position on final-status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders,” he said. But former U.S. officials with long histories on the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio say he’s used other language that’s sent a very different message to Palestinians.

On more than one public occasion, Trump has said he took Jerusalem “off the table,” and has never fully explained what that means. “By deliberately leaving this vague, he’s made sure that the Palestinians think that he’s giving all of Jerusalem to Israel,” said David Makovsky, a Mideast peace negotiator in the Obama administration. “Leaving that hanging in the air and letting everyone draw their own conclusions, the Palestinians are going to make the more maximalist conclusion.”

But this may be more than just an issue of perception, as Israel uses the time to make a more material claim to Jerusalem’s eastern half. “Given the fact that the Israeli government lays claim to both sides of the city, that there are seven government ministries in the east, nobody is talking about giving the Palestinians sovereignty over East Jerusalem,” said Aaron David Miller, the longtime Middle East peace negotiator and origin of the Clinton-lawyer comparison. “The Israeli government is creating realities on the ground designed to preempt a contiguous capital, and the Trump administration is acquiescing. It makes mission impossible all the more impossible.”

On the most basic level, the new embassy makes it politically more difficult to broker the international community’s vision of a two-state agreement with East Jerusalem as a capital of Palestine. As Israel entrenches itself deeper into all of Jerusalem (Netanyahu was not unaware of the reverberations of his final lines at Monday’s ceremony: “God bless Jerusalem, the eternal, undivided capital of Israel”), any future withdrawal becomes more fraught. It took 50,000 Israeli army officers to remove fewer than 10,000 settlers in Gaza in 2005. Imagine what it would look like if they ever had to remove hundreds of thousands from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And crucially, any such withdrawal at that point would only create a Gaza-like power vacuum to be filled by Hamas.

Yet the most profound impact of the embassy relocation is the way it diminishes the United States’ capacity to act as a mediator in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. “The prospect of the United States returning to the role of broker under any foreseeable future doesn’t pass the laugh test,” said Daniel Seidemann, who founded and directs the NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem, which tracks political and humanitarian developments in the city. “And that is the largest consequence of the embassy move.”

It is a foreign policy axiom that the U.S. is the only third party that can give both sides the kind of guarantees they need to make the compromises necessary: It’s why in the past, throughout the Oslo Peace Process, Israelis and Palestinians alike wanted American officials in the room for negotiations, not a delegation from the United Nations, not the European Union. Of course, only Israelis and Palestinians can ultimately cross the rubicon of peace, but the Palestinians now rejecting American leadership has far-reaching ramifications, effectively sidelining the only international actor that can facilitate a deal.

The Jerusalem embassy’s inauguration ceremony was imbued with a kind of dark irony. Speaking to a room that included Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Netanyahu called it a “glorious day.”

But if Trump is uncritically enabling the Likud Party agenda, he may hurt Israel in the long run. Israelis may well be grateful Trump gave them something they’ve deeply wanted for a long time, and with no “give and take,” as Friedman told reporters last Friday. But the Trump administration’s incantations about peace, as split images of the ceremony on TV screens showed Gazans storming the Israel-Gaza barrier, are not the same as an actual improvement in security. Nor do they provide any real reason to believe this White House is creating the conditions for Israelis and Palestinians to have a better future. With tensions escalating in Gaza and Abbas recalling his envoy to Washington on Tuesday, all signs suggest it is doing the exact opposite.