Since 2017 has been so whiplash-inducing and spasmodic, it seems fitting that the last piece I write to close out this year be a couple of thoughts on recent events that are related to each other only by dint of their topic rather than any central thesis or argument. Just as the last calendar year came to a close with a focus on Jerusalem and an American president’s position on its status, this one does too, albeit in a very different manner. So without further ado, let’s dive in.
Nobody should get so worked up about stating the obvious.
President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was stating the obvious, and there is nothing wrong with doing so. Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel since the country’s founding, and the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians – as well as the position of the international community – is about the specific boundaries of Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem rather than whether Israel has a claim to any part of the city. The problem with what Trump did was not that he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but that he did not explicitly state that the U.S. also continues to recognize that East Jerusalem’s status is disputed, and that any future Palestinian capital will be in East Jerusalem. As Dan Shapiro has pointed out, the reason the second half of this equation is a necessary corollary to the first half is because it shatters myths on both sides; the Palestinian myth that there is no Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the Israeli myth of an eternally united Jerusalem.
The same principle applies even more strongly to the unnamed Trump administration official’s statement that “We cannot envision any situation under which the Western Wall would not be part of Israel.” This assurance was treated in some quarters as controversial or as if it upends decades of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, which is nonsense. Nobody involved in this ongoing peace process stalemate has ever assumed that the Western Wall would not be included inside Israel’s final borders. Negotiations between Israel and the P.L.O. have always taken that as a given, and including the Western Wall inside of Israel would be Israel’s only inviolable condition were it forced to pick just one. But as with the administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, the issue is not what was said, but what was left unsaid. It does not prejudice anything to declare that the Western Wall will always be sovereign Israeli territory, but neither would it prejudice anything to declare that an independent Palestinian state will be established on somewhere between 90 percent and 98 percent of the West Bank – another glaringly obvious fact. That the Trump administration is willing to state the obvious when it pertains to Israeli interests but not when it pertains to Palestinian ones is what creates a problem.
In Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, there has always been a principle that nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. In other words, a deal cannot be done piecemeal and no negotiating concession or position is operative until a final status agreement has been signed. The pitfalls of such an approach should by now be evident, as they ensure that any progress that is ever made is illusory and that the wheel must be reinvented every single time. I view the Trump administration’s move toward affirming what everyone already knows to be a potentially helpful corrective, but only if it applies to both sides. Otherwise, rather than being a helpful corrective, it becomes a reason for the Palestinians to understandably dig in their heels even further. Which brings me to my next point:
The Trump administration’s theory of change is woefully misguided.
The idea behind Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as laid out by administration officials was that it would make the negotiating process easier rather than harder by taking off the table a needless sticking point between the two sides. After all, everyone knows that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, so better to make the Palestinians acknowledge this truth outside of the bargaining process. This was, of course, a ridiculous premise, since this only works if the Palestinians can spin what happened as not a unilateral gift to the Israelis, but as a genuine effort to make both sides face the obvious. Since Trump gave nothing to the Palestinians, the response was sadly predictable, which is that the Palestinians are not willing to look like Kevin Bacon in Animal House by thanking the president before asking for another indignity. It is not encouraging that anyone in the White House thought that the Palestinians would be sufficiently cowed by this to belly up to the negotiating table or see the tortured logic that allegedly explains how this benefits them. On the other hand, if the intention was to simply give Israel an enormous free concession without regard to any peace initiative being cooked up, then this was a job well done.
It is important to bear in mind that there are two separate issues here. The first is whether recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is the fair and just thing to do. On that, I have no quarrel, despite the fact that I still would rather have seen Trump do this as part of a formulation that made it clear that it referred to West Jerusalem only. The second is whether doing this makes getting to a negotiated agreement easier, which was an argument that Trump officials explicitly made in explaining why this was being done now. And on that issue, the Jerusalem recognition must be judged as a stunningly naïve and abject failure. President Abbas has frozen the U.S. out – so much so that Vice President Pence’s trip to the region next month will be devoid of meetings with any Palestinians – and declared his intention to go back to what was and will be a failed strategy of acquiring statehood through appeals to international organizations. The three Arab states that were supposed to pressure the Palestinians on behalf of the Trump initiative and about which we have been repeatedly told by Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli government officials that they will eventually embrace Israel no matter what happens with the Palestinians are in various stages of retreat. Jordan has still not restored full relations with Israel after the shooting incident at the Israeli embassy in Amman last July; Egypt this week sponsored the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the American recognition of Jerusalem; and Saudi King Salman issued a statement blasting the U.S. while Prince Turki al-Faisal – the public face of Saudi outreach to Israel – penned an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that reads like a missive from 1968 in its blunt language toward both Trump and Israel. It is a safe bet that Abbas’s current trip to Saudi Arabia is not going to result in reports alleging that he is being pressured by the Saudi monarchy to say yes to whatever Trump offers him. All of this is to say that rather than make negotiations easier, Trump’s move destroyed any nascent hope that existed for what was always going to be an uphill climb of Everestian proportions.
Nothing that happens at the UN is ever good.
Last year, UNSC Resolution 2334 set off an uproar, and in my view at the time rightly so. Absolutely nothing good came out of it, and it did nothing to help Israel or the Palestinians, nothing to improve the prospects for successful negotiations, and nothing to advance the cause of peace. This year, Nikki Haley is attracting all sorts of plaudits, including from Netanyahu himself, for the U.S. veto of the resolution calling for the reversal of the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. I’m happy that the U.S. used its veto, but it was irrelevant; the UN has no more power or authority to reverse an internal U.S. government decision on recognizing a foreign capital than I do. And just like Resolution 2334 had the opposite effect that its backers intended by only hardening the resolve of Israeli politicians who want to see the settlement enterprise turned into an annexation enterprise, the effort to condemn the U.S. for its Jerusalem move is not going to make Jerusalem any less the capital of Israel, convince the Israeli government to redraw the city’s municipal lines, or convince Palestinians to stop pushing noxious resolutions denying a Jewish connection to the city and Judaism’s holy sites. It will only make Jerusalem hardliners on both sides only more determined to advance their inflammatory plans and rhetoric. So by all means, hold up Haley as a paragon of pro-Israel virtue and applaud her willingness to stand up for Israel, but understand that this is more of a theatrical victory than an actual one. Everyone would be better off if there were never any cause going forward to celebrate or denounce something that the U.S. has done at the UN regarding Israel.
See you back here in 2018, and happy new year to all.