Protesting Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel / CNS photo

Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem has never been accepted by the international community. Fifty years ago, UN Security Council Resolution 242 demanded that Israel withdraw from the territories it occupied during the 1967 War, including East Jerusalem. The following year the Security Council passed a resolution demanding that the Israeli government stop expropriating Palestinian property in the eastern part of the city. A resolution in spring of 1980 condemned the construction of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and other occupied territories. Later that year, when Israel officially claimed all of Jerusalem, “complete and united,” as its capital, yet another resolution declared that claim “null and void,” and called on all countries with diplomatic missions in Jerusalem to withdraw them.

As a permanent member of the Security Council, the United States could have blocked any of these resolutions, but chose not to, despite its strong support for the state of Israel. While many U.S. presidents have promised during their campaigns to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Holy City and to move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv, none has kept that promise once elected. They have all understood that, on this question at least, what makes for good domestic politics would make for bad foreign policy. It would violate decades’ worth of UN resolutions and thereby alienate many of our closest allies. More importantly, it would undermine whatever’s left of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But Donald Trump is different. He doesn’t mind alienating a few allies now and then, and has always worried more about politics than policy. When it comes to the peace process, he is both ill-informed and overconfident. He promises that, with the help of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, he will succeed where everyone before him has failed, brokering what he calls the “ultimate deal” or “the deal of the century.” Back in May, during a visit to Washington by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, Trump remarked that such a deal is “frankly, maybe, not as difficult as people have thought over the years.” Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and God knows Trump is no angel.

When it comes to the peace process, Trump is both ill-informed and overconfident

It was dismaying, then, but not entirely surprising when the president announced on December 6 that the United States would formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and eventually relocate its embassy there. “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality,” he insisted. “It is also the right thing to do.”

No one outside of the United States and Israel appeared to agree. Both China and the European Union quickly distanced themselves from the new U.S. policy. António Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations, warned against “any unilateral measures that would jeopardize the prospect of peace for Israelis and Palestinians.” The governments of Muslim-majority countries throughout the world issued statements criticizing the move, in tones of caution or outrage. A spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called it a “grave mistake,” while the king of Saudi Arabia told Trump it would only complicate future negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Speaking at his weekly general audience, Pope Francis expressed “deep concern for the situation” in the Holy Land and, without mentioning Trump, urged world leaders to “avoid adding new elements of tension in a world already shaken and scarred by many cruel conflicts.”

The president’s supporters and even some of his critics predicted that his announcement would be met in the Muslim world with no more than a bitter sigh of resignation. The main conflict in the Middle East, they said, was no longer between Israel and the Palestinians but between Shia Iran and the Sunni states. And, besides, didn’t everyone understand by now that the two hundred thousand Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem were there to stay? Who could be surprised that the Trump administration, beholden to Evangelical voters and hardline Jewish groups like AIPAC, favored Israel’s claims over those of the Palestinians?

There may have been sighs, but there has also been plenty of anger and unrest—mass demonstrations from Lebanon to Indonesia, clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians protesters in the West Bank, missiles launched from Gaza followed by Israeli air strikes. Several Palestinians were killed and hundreds injured in “three days of rage.” All for an empty gesture, a pointless “recognition of reality” that does nothing to advance the cause of peace or security in the Middle East, and gratuitously reminds the Arab Muslims and Christians of East Jerusalem that they remain unwelcome guests in their own home, dispossessed of land and deprived of dignity. As long as this wound remains open, anything worth calling diplomacy will at least avoid rubbing salt in it. For the past seven decades, U.S. presidents of both parties have understood this. They have also understood that the status of Jerusalem must finally be determined as part of a peace agreement, not in advance of one. But these considerations appear to be lost on President Trump. He seems to care only that he is the first president who has dared to keep this irresponsible campaign promise—the consequences be damned.

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Published in the January 5, 2018 issue: View Contents
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