On December 6, 2017, President Trump announced that the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and that the American embassy would eventually be relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The announcement sparked protests and condemnation throughout the region and at the United Nations. What are the consequences of the declaration for the United States and parties the region? What does it mean for the conflict going forward?
Brookings Fellow Khaled Elgindy wrote that the decision “has thrown a wrench into an already moribund peace process and could well mean the end of U.S. efforts to forge a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.” He explained that “[t]he Palestinian leadership has condemned the move, which it said effectively disqualifies the United States from serving as peace broker, and warned it would throw an already volatile region into chaos.” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who Elgindy calls “the weakest party in the mix,” is likely to be the biggest loser as these events unfold. Elgindy also wrote: “[Abbas] faces a daunting political dilemma: the potential loss of the United States, which has been a cornerstone of the [Palestine Liberation Organization] PLO’s strategy for achieving an independent state for more than three decades.” Elgindy further contended: “Having tethered his political fate to the sinking ship of a U.S.-sponsored peace process, Abbas has left himself no Plan B.”
Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Shibley Telhami argued the move could force President Abbas “to walk away, at least initially, from talks.” Furthermore, Telhami contended that even if President Trump could get Abbas to accept the move, “the leverage Abbas would expend to keep any degree of legitimacy among Palestinians will inevitably come at the expense of his ability to convince the Palestinians to swallow any deal Trump will offer—a nearly impossible task in the first place.”
Brookings Executive Vice President Martin Indyk wrote that when Israelis “read the fine print about where [Trump’s] recognition does not apply and realize the embassy is not moving anytime soon, many on the right may feel duped.” Indyk argued the declaration was not enough to fulfill the “annexationist appetite” of Israel’s right wing political parties and their American evangelical Christian supporters.
According to Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Shalom Lipner, despite enthusiasm in Israel, Trump’s words have “little practical significance.” Lipner continued that while Israelis are happy that “their foremost ally has granted acceptance of its de facto capital, pretty much everything else remains the same as before.” “The chances of America’s new position on Jerusalem setting off an immediate, global avalanche of recognition are slim to none,” Lipner wrote.
“No one … should fall under the illusion that declaring Jerusalem Israel’s capital will harm America’s alliances with most, or even many, Arab nations,” argued Brookings Senior Fellow Shadi Hamid, acknowledging Jordan as a notable exception. If Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, were concerned with Jerusalem’s status, Hamid said “they would presumably have used their privileged status as a top Trump ally and lobbied the administration to hold off on such a needlessly toxic move.” Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow in the Brookings Doha Center, explained that Trump’s announcement “heightens the sense of alienation that many in the Middle East feel regarding Riyadh’s anti-Iran front forged with the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government.”
As for how the decision affects the United States, Shibley Telhami stated the declaration on Jerusalem went “against the very priorities that the [Trump] administration has set for itself in the Middle East: fighting Islamist militancy and confronting Iranian influence.” Jerusalem, Telhami continues, “is the perfect issue for Iran and Islamist militants to use to mobilize support against the United States and those who endorse its policies.”
At the same time, the Jerusalem decision was significant to the GOP’s Christian base, according to Brookings Visiting Fellow Célia Belin, particularly of “Christian Zionists,” “who believe that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land is in accordance with God’s will, and biblical prophecy.” Belin explained that while the president “might turn off some evangelicals for his un-holy behavior, he has understood that his evangelical base can cynically support candidates they disapprove of as long as they deliver on policy items that are high on their religious agenda.” Trump did so with this announcement, and thus evangelicals “will celebrate him for it,” she writes.
In a 5 on 45 episode, Brookings Fellow Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, said the announcement on Jerusalem dramatically complicated the hand President Trump is giving to Jared Kushner, who is in charge of the peace process. However, according to Nonresident Senior Fellow Hady Amr, “the decades-old chapter of U.S. leadership in the Israeli-Palestinian arena may have come to a close … [and] that may not be such a bad thing.”