Last week, President Donald Trump justified almost with a shrug his decision to implement a 22-year old Congressional wish and declare Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital. The action, he said, reflected “nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.”
Given this surface clear-eyed view, he nonetheless tried to soften the decision by saying that the future boundaries of the city were not set in stone and would depend on peace talks, if they ever resume. Some saw this as creative ambiguity. The Washington Post, in an unsigned editorial, suggested the Trump decision was nothing more than political “preening” for a domestic audience.
Preeening or not, Trump rejected long standing, United Nations-supported uncertainty in regards to Jerusalem’s status. It also, simply put, placed Trump’s thumb on the side of the diplomatic scale favoring Israel’s position on Jerusalem: it is one, united and all theirs.
Of course, this is not the first time a US President has decided that what counts, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are simply what concretely has happened not what you might prefer. Trump has acceded to what over time have become known in the Israel-Palestinian conflict as “facts on the ground.” That phrase was coined by Israeli general Moshe Dayan after his country’s triumph in the 1967 Middle East War and the first settlements on the West Bank were proffered up as a solution to Israel’s ground defense in possible future wars.
The reality of construction and placement of population, in Dayan’s view, were key to keeping territory, not adherence to some paper status quo. And that has proved true, not only Jerusalem, where settlements have been constructed throughout the city to surround and limit Arab neighborhoods, but also in the West Bank.
Take the case of President George W Bush. As he saw it, the facts on the ground were the existence of some 130 Israeli settlements across the West Bank. In 2004, he told then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that it was “unrealistic” to presume that the outcome of peace talks would include dismantling these settlements. No matter that this notion ran against international opinion that the settlements were illegal and American policy that, at the least, they were obstacles to peace.
Bush may have thought that his concession would persuade Israel to rein in or stop settlement growth. After all, Sharon had abandoned Gaza Strip settlements. And Sharon gave the appearance of agreement to Bush’s hopes. In a return letter to Bush, he said that Israel’s future responsibilities included, “limitations on the growth of settlements.”
However, when Barack Obama took over the presidency and tried to strong arm Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to end settlement construction, Netanyahu blew him off. It turned out, according to the New York Times, that the Bush Administration had never actually made a concrete deal to limit the settlements in any way.
“We had a tentative agreement,” an ex-Bush official told the Times in 2009, “But that was contingent on drawing up lines, and this is a process that never got done, therefore the settlement freeze was never formalized and never done.”
Obama abandoned his effort to pressure Netanyahu.
Trump predicts that his Jerusalem gambit will end with renewed and meaningful Palestinian-Israeli talks. I doubt it. Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas has long evaded negotiations and prefers to take the Palestinian case to the UN, where he lobbies for Palestine’s recognition as a state within pre-1967 war borders. He may take heart in the negative international response to Trump’s Jerusalem declaration.
For his part, Netanyahu has long made clear his antagonism to the so-called two-state solution that would leave the Palestinians in charge of most of the West Bank and all of Gaza. There’s no path to renewed negotiations there.
So what does Trump really want? Preening, of course, is sometimes cheap and often meaningless as far as getting positive results. In this case, it hardly buttresses America’s self-description and mythical status as an honest broker. And it’s hard not to combine Trump’s Jerusalem decision with his Administration’s pro-settlement cast. Trump’s ambassador to Israel is openly pro-settlement. According to ProPublica, Charles Kushner, father of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, operates a charity that just provided money for Bet El, a settlement that overlooks Ramallah home of the Palestinian government. Somehow, Jared is Trump’s special envoy to yet-to-be worked out peace talks. There’s a fact on the White House grounds to chew on.