When President Donald J. Trump announced in December 2017 that he was moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, members of his administration argued forcefully that it would advance the cause of peace. They described it as a “clarifying moment” that was merely acknowledging the reality that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and is consistent with Jewish historical claims to the city. This view holds that once the issue of Israel’s capital was finally settled and the embassy moved to its location just west of the Green (or Armistice) Line, serious peace negotiations could begin. Yet the president’s decision was devoid of any recognition of the Israeli political context in which there is little, if any, interest in a two-state solution and he grossly miscalculated the likely Palestinian response. Both of these elements have conspired to make negotiations even less likely than before.
The location of the new American embassy is on property that would be in the Israeli capital at the end of any negotiations that settle the conflict. Yet absent serious talks or even a U.S. policy to address issues like settlements, borders, refugees, and the humanitarian suffering in the Gaza Strip, the opening of the new embassy only legitimates—even rewards—Israel’s hardline approach to the conflict. The logical conclusion of this approach is the annexation of territory that Palestinians hoped would be part of their state.
Without much notice, earlier this year, the Israeli government made technical changes to the way it implements legislation and regulations that will make it easier to establish Israeli sovereignty over West Bank land. The minister of justice and attorney general now require Israeli ministries to justify why new legislation should not apply to settlements in what they refer to as “Judea and Samaria.” This came at the same time that the central committee of the governing Likud Party voted to extend Israel’s legal jurisdiction to West Bank settlements. The vote was nonbinding, but given the ideological disposition of Israel’s cabinet, it signaled the intentions of leading politicians—some of whom were in attendance and celebrated the vote. Then, of course, there is the ongoing settlement project with its attendant infrastructure that is designed to make it impossible for the Palestinians to have a territorially contiguous state with access to Jerusalem. The stalemate in negotiations for much of the last decade greatly facilitates the consolidation of Israel’s control over the occupied territories. And while Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas shares considerable blame for the repeated failures of negotiation, it is mainly the Israeli government and its supporters at home and abroad whose interests are served by stalemate.
The Trump administration seems to share the belief that hardline Israelis and their supporters often advance, that the only way to forge peace is to defeat the Palestinians, forcing them to accept terms that Washington and Jerusalem dictate. This view underestimates the importance of “steadfastness”—sumud in Arabic—in the face of adversity and occupation that has become integral to Palestinian identity over the last seventy years. The deadly protests in Gaza on Monday were not about the American embassy, but rather intended to demonstrate that the Palestinians will neither submit to Israeli dictates nor accommodate themselves to their current conditions. It is worth noting that Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and was met with rocket fire—the very definition of the Palestinians missing an opportunity—but the Israeli immiseration of Gaza (with Egyptian help) has not forced the Palestinians to abandon their struggle for justice.
When it comes to Jerusalem and the embassy move, the argument that “everyone knows” that the western side of the city will be the capital of Israel could not possibly assuage Palestinian concerns for three related reasons:
- First, the Israeli government does not recognize the distinction between East Jerusalem, where Palestinians have insisted their future capital be in a negotiated peace process, and West Jerusalem and has done everything possible to erase the remnants of the city’s division.
- Second, the U.S. government no longer recognizes the Occupied Territories as occupied, providing political and diplomatic cover for Israel’s slow-rolling annexation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
- Third, the Palestinians regard the Oslo peace process and everything that came after it as a ruse that served only to add settlers, settlements, and roads precluding a Palestinian state. Thus there is no reason to believe U.S. officials when they declare their intention to forge peace.
Washington has already enabled Israel’s permanent occupation, and with the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem, has willingly given up the only issue with which it could potentially generate some leverage with the Israeli government.
This is not to absolve the Palestinians of a variety of transgressions, including Hamas’ bloody campaigns against civilians, the endless barrage of rockets, and Mahmoud Abbas’s anti-Semitic tirades. For all of Israel’s intransigence over the last decade, Abbas rejected a 2008 offer from then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that might have ended the conflict. A decade later, annexation is a reality, Gaza is collapsing under its own weight, and American officials—past and present—nevertheless repeat their commitment to a nonexistent peace process culminating in a two-state solution.
What is required instead is an understanding in Washington of the more likely outcomes in Israel and the Palestinian territories—annexation, bloodshed, and stalemate—and how they will affect U.S. interests and security in the Middle East. Everything else constitutes platitudes substituting for policy.