In 1995, Congress adopted the Jerusalem Embassy Act urging the federal government to relocate the American Embassy to Jerusalem and to recognize that that city, and so importantly, is Israel’s capital. This act passed congress by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. And was reaffirmed by unanimous vote of the Senate only six months ago.
Yet, for over 20 years, every previous American president has exercised the law’s waiver, refusing to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem or to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city. Presidents issued these waivers under the belief that delaying the recognition of Jerusalem would advance the cause of peace. Some say they lacked courage but they made their best judgments based on facts as they understood them at the time. Nevertheless, the record is in.
After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result.
Therefore, I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver.
Today, I am delivering. I’ve judged this course of action to be in the best interests of the United States of America and the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This is a long overdue step to advance the peace process. And to work towards a lasting agreement.
Israel is a sovereign nation with the right, like every other sovereign nation, to determine its own capital. Acknowledging this is a fact is a necessary condition for achieving peace.--President Trump (6 December 2017) quoting from the full transcript in The New York Times.
Trump is (rightfully) such a toxic figure to many and his relationship to democratic norms so tenuous that it is almost impossible to have a fair-minded discussion of any of his public utterances, especially on a topic (America's role in the Middle East) that is not just already deeply polarizing, but often an occasion for continuing a propaganda war. But whatever the wisdom and motives of this decision, it is a fact that merely repeating the tired formula's and policies of the recent few decades will not advance the cause of peace "between Israel and the Palestinians." It is important that he used 'Palestinians' and not the more evasive 'Arabs'--there is also unfinished business of lack of peace between Israel and most of its neighboring countries--; Trump here recognizes explicitly the centrality of the Palestinians to any solution. To the best of our knowledge, there is currently no genuine peace process between the parties principled involved nor currently an obvious path to a two-state solution (the outlines of which known for several decades now).
I hedge my bets in the previous sentence because a genuine peace process would have to be conducted in secret for a while. But because the Palestinian movement is so divided right now (even granting that this has been Israeli strategic policy for decades) and a majority of Israelis see no reason at all to contemplate the compromises any final settlement would require (and cheap land/housing is entrenching a good chunk of its voters on the territory of any would-be-Palestinian state), it would really be miraculous if a peace process can be salvaged somewhere right now.
It is worth noting that since the Oslo accords (1993/5, note the years and compare it with the Congressional resolution mentioned by Trump), we also know that America is not indispensable -- despite the many cards it could play to facilitate one -- for any would-be-final-agreement for important advances in the peace process. Since Obama's spineless red-lines and inhumane indifference in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the US's role in the Mideast is one of partial retreat anyway.* (Trump's policy in the Gulf, where two nominal allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are on the brink of war, is no less coherent.)
As an aside, Trump's speech also makes clear that his decision was driven in large part by domestic considerations. And, in fact, it's been notable how adroit Trump has been in rewarding his most influential supporters; this suggests that the veneer of incompetence that hangs over his Administration should be balanced with recognition of his capacity to deliver benefits to allies when he so chooses.
Of course, it's also possible that deviating from the status quo will make matters worse, and this helps explain the risk adverseness of US Policy during the last few decades and many other participants. But while I firmly believe that things can always get worse, it's hard to see how things could be worse than the status quo: Egypt is under violent dictatorship and sliding into a civil war in Sinai; Syria, Yemen, and Libya are in ruins (and Yemen getting worse); Saudi Arabia is led by reckless gamblers. Iraq is in nth year of civil war. Conditions in Gaza are awful because of the Israeli blockade and Hamas's one-party rule (judging by worldbank numbers Gaza has just recovered from the 2014 fighting but with massive unemployment it stands to reason that whatever growth there has been has lined the pockets of few). Conditions in the Westbank are also no reason for cheer to any humane bystander (again due to strategic Israeli obstacles and lack of state capacity by the Palestinians).
Some of my Zionist friends will rejoice in this decision for two reasons: first, it may well be a key step in the normalization of Israel's role in the world. (I hedge my bets because (a) Trump is so polarizing and (b) a lot depends on the decisions of China, India, Russia and key EU member states. Because Trump has been so unwilling to be a world leader, his decisions don't automatically lead to cascade of decisions.) While the move is primarily symbolic, symbols do matter. Second, superficially at least, it scored a major diplomatic coup 'without having to give up anything in return' (genuine settlement freeze, ending of various blockades, freeing Marwan Barghouti, etc.). Even so from a narrow, Zionist perspective this decision also involves considerable risks. At one point Trump said in his speech:
But today we finally acknowledge the obvious. That Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do. It’s something that has to be done.
By unilaterally decoupling a major American political decision concerning Israel and the Palestinians from the non-existent peace process, Trump also removed Israel's de facto veto power over many American actions. That is, the strategic interests that Trump served here are fundamentally American; Trump untied America's hands vis a vis Israel. A future Administration may well decide that "recognition of reality" also entails recognizing a Palestinian state in Gaza, and perhaps another in the West Bank (or some other formula), regardless of Israel's views on the matter.** If the 'right thing to do' can decide matters, then Palestinian cries for justice may will move the heart of future Presidents.
Regular readers know that I think Zionist policy is in a strategic predicament. I have done a series of posts in which I highlight the strategic failures of Zionism: i) its failure to establish permanent borders for the state of Israel; (ii) to settle what kind of political entity Israel should be so that it can end its near-permanent war-footing and occupation of hostile populations; (iii) (the perception of) Israel's dependence on America's political and military support, which ties Israel to America's strategic interests and shifting electoral politics; (iv) the split between the interests of Zionism and the majority of American Jewry. Trump's decision does not help develop routes out of this predicament. On the contrary, it has arguably entrenched the third and fourth of these in ways that undermine bi-partisan support for Israel.
Strategic predicaments can last a long time, and tactical victories are still tactical victories. Israel's tactical advantage has never been better in its history. I hope I am wrong, but the inability to turn this advantage into a permanent settlement will come back to bite us.
*This sentence is compatible with the thought that maybe, all things considered, such retreat is best in the long run.
**Again it will have pleased most of my Zionist friends that there was no mention of UN resolutions at all. But these resolutions also provide a baseline for Israeli policy. That baseline is now removed.