There are few issues more contentious in global politics than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Of the many roadblocks to peace in this conflict (the right of Palestinian return, Israeli settlements...), the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital is a symbolic, but no less meaningful gesture. Conventional wisdom would say that only the biggest fool would alter American policy on Jerusalem's status without a final negotiation in place. Well this week, the world learned who the biggest fool really is. The Trump administration announced this week that it will formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Until now, the city of Tel Aviv had always been considered the capital, with no nations formally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital city. This may not sound like a big deal, but its implications will have far reaching effects throughout the Middle East. Editor's note: this one is a bit of a rant.
We've covered the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a few previous posts, and even discussed the proposed Israeli embassy move back when the idea was first being considered. Go read those for a more thorough understanding of this issue. The short version is that the area known as Palestine is predominantly made up of Arab families who have lived in the region for centuries. The nation of Israel is predominantly made up of religiously and ethnically Jewish families, most of whom (but not all) migrated to the region when it was under British control. Both sides claim much of the same territory, including most of the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem itself is divided (by a giant wall) into an eastern and a western section. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their capital, while Israel claims the entire city as its capital. Until now, every other nation on Earth has attempted to respect both sides by not favoring one claim over the other. Despite what this administration may say, this move is a clear signal that it does not consider the Palestinian claim as being legitimate. Recognizing Jerusalem as the capital is like telling your ugly best friend that they are ugly. It may be true in fact, and everyone may know it to be true, but actually saying it doesn't really do anyone any good.
So why make such a needlessly reckless change to American foreign policy? Well it fulfills a campaign promise that the president made during a speech to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Sure, it may temporarily boost America's standing with Israel's hard-right politicians, but at what cost? What did America get in return for this major concession to its policy? Recognition of Jerusalem could have been used as a major bargaining chip in negotiating a peace process. But the man who claims to make the best deals gave up this concession seemingly without any indication that the United States would get anything from Israel in return. Not only that, it completely marginalizes the concerns of the Palestinians. Israel already enjoys a near-sacred relationship with the United States, so such a gesture was hardly needed to improve relations.
What else does it mean? The United States is effectively finished as a credible actor in the Middle East peace process as far as Palestine is concerned. The administration can claim that this doesn't change facts on the ground, but the Palestinians have already said they will no longer work with the United States to form a peace deal. It is also another blow to attempts at the two-state solution. Though Israel claims to want a two-state solution, most of its actions indicate otherwise. The recognition of Jerusalem undercuts this idea since most two state proposals include some sort of shared ownership of Jerusalem.
Unless Jared Kushner can pull off a miracle with his "secret plan to solve Israel-Palestine," it is very likely that Russia will step in to try to negotiate. The Kremlin has been looking for chances to style itself as a Middle East power broker and has already attempted to negotiate the Syrian Civil War. Working on the Palestinian-Israeli issue would further increase not only its credibility, but its influence as well. America will also have undermined its relationship with regional Arab allies. This recognition makes it harder for countries like Saudi Arabia to continue working closely with a nation that openly admits that it places the Israelis over the Palestinians. The president could have recognized West Jerusalem as Israel's capital while also recognizing East Jerusalem as a future Palestinian capital. Such a move may have actually encouraged both sides to come to an agreement. This new unilateral declaration that only favors Israel will not.
But this is just another in a series of self-defeating actions by this administration in the Middle East. The United States has allowed itself to be somewhat sidelined in the Syrian Civil War negotiations. It has threatened to renege on the Iran nuclear deal even though nearly every agency and expert agrees that Iran is complying with the text of the agreement. Attempting to go back on the deal when Iran is complying makes the U.S. look completely untrustworthy as a credible negotiator. Now, the administration is even considering appeasing Turkey by removing its support for the Kurds in Syria, who have been one of the most effective allies in removing ISIS and supporting American interests. It is hard to see how these actions have a major upside for the United States. Instead, they appear to be major concessions given mostly to adversaries with no apparent gain in return except for vague promises of future cooperation.
The big question now is what happens next. The Palestinians will certainly protest this move, and Arab nations will be forced to distance themselves from America. And there is always the risk of regional violence, which is usually met with even harsher violence from the other side. Peace talks with Israel and Palestine had already faltered a couple years ago, but now they look even further away than ever. The administration's claim that this will spur the Palestinians to renew peace talks is an ignorant fantasy. What is certain is that other nations will once again fill the void that the U.S. is leaving behind in its apparent contempt for its own hard-fought status of global leadership. Once again, the campaign of American self-isolation around the world continues.