President Trump this week has a number of big decisions to make that will impact the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. What he does will affect not only his soon-to-be unveiled peace initiative, but also the trajectory of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, more widely. Trump’s moves this week should be judged based on whether he is able to treat both sides fundamentally fairly while preserving the American role as a helpful broker between the two sides instead of contributing to even more regional upheaval. The issue at hand is not Israeli West Jerusalem, but whether anything the president does upsets the deliberate ambiguity over the current and future status of East Jerusalem, and any American policy changes must be viewed through this prism.
Trump’s first decision is whether to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 directed the president to move the embassy, but every president since its passage — including Trump last June — has, for national security reasons, signed the biannual waiver preserving the funding for American diplomatic facilities that the act put at risk and has kept the embassy where it is. The argument for moving the embassy to Jerusalem relies on a basic notion of fairness. Israel is the only United Nations member state whose capital — determined by its own democratically elected and sovereign government — is not accepted by the rest of the international community. The status of Jerusalem neighborhoods west of the Green Line is not disputed, and even the Palestine Liberation Organization accepts West Jerusalem to be part of Israel in the context of negotiations. Israelis view the refusal to locate the American embassy in West Jerusalem as giving ammunition to those who delegitimize Israel’s very existence, fueling a fear that the legitimacy of their state will never be fully recognized. Moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem would right a historical wrong and send a powerful message about history, justice, and the value of supporting allies.
Moving the embassy would not, however, be cost-free. It would almost certainly provoke violence against Israelis and against American diplomatic facilities around the world, as the wide perception would be that the United States is changing the status quo on Jerusalem and putting its thumb on the scale of the issue that is the most sensitive of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would also place the stability of key American allies at risk, with Jordan a particular concern. Due to Jordan’s historical role in Jerusalem and its privileged status as recognized by the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, and to the fact that the majority of its population is Palestinian-origin, any sudden moves in the city have a major impact on Jordan’s domestic politics. Protests in Jordan focused on a change in Jerusalem can easily spiral out of control and endanger the most reliable Arab ally that the United States has in the Middle East.
Finally, moving the embassy to Jerusalem outside of the context of a permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will destroy any credibility that the United States has with the Palestinians as an honest broker and make it harder — if not outright impossible — for the Palestinians to ever return to the negotiating table. Moving the embassy would be seen as granting an enormous concession to Israel without giving anything to the Palestinians in return, and would raise tensions across the region rather than lower them.
Even if he does not move the embassy, reports indicate that Trump is weighing whether or not to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This, too, carries the risk of setting the region on fire, but unlike moving the embassy, there is a way to do it that can be fair to both sides without prejudicing a future peace deal.
Declaring American recognition of the entirety of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would actually be even more inflammatory than moving the embassy. After all, if the embassy is moved to a neighborhood of West Jerusalem, the Trump administration could credibly claim that doing so does not prejudice any future negotiations over East Jerusalem and does not constitute a change in American policy, although ordinary Palestinians protesting in the streets are unlikely to buy that distinction.
Recognizing an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, however, buries that distinction forever. The status of Jerusalem has always been the thorniest of the core issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Changes in the city’s status quo — most prominently and most recently manifested in conflict over the Temple Mount this past July — lead to outbreaks of violence that can spin out of control and be difficult to manage, fundamentally putting Israel’s security at risk. There is simply no question that using any language that explicitly or implicitly aligns American policy with the Israeli government claim to all of Jerusalem will be the most damaging thing that the Trump administration could do to the prospects of a future peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
There is a way for the president to treat Israeli and Palestinian historical claims fairly and maintain American credibility on all sides, which would be to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and leave no ambiguity about maintaining existing American policy regarding the rest of the city. This would entail making clear that the United States does not recognize Israeli sovereignty across the entirety of the city and that acknowledging West Jerusalem as Israel’s rightful capital does not prevent the establishment of a future Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. This policy option grants Israel the recognition in its capital that it deserves without prejudging negotiations over the disputed portion of the city, and it may also avoid the likeliest triggers for violence. This, and only this, among the menu of options that Trump is considering, would be the only way to both legitimize Israel’s rightful claims in Jerusalem and maintain a viable two-state solution in the future.
President Trump seems eager to plunge headfirst into an issue that is fraught with traps and potential pitfalls. The only way to do so successfully is to maintain the current balance over East Jerusalem and not do anything that will make the Middle East any more chaotic. Should he decide to move the embassy or, even more dangerously, to support Israel’s claim to the entire Jerusalem municipality, he will have failed this test.
Michael Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum.