President Donald Trump says his decision to buck the advice of America’s closest Muslim allies and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is part of a broader strategy shift needed to produce a Middle East peace pact. But some lawmakers and experts argue the president has unnecessarily undercut himself.
Trump on Wednesday formally announced he will abide by a 1995 U.S. law and move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and recognize that city as the country’s official capital. He noted that for the last 22 years, his predecessors have — despite some campaign-trail pledges to the contrary — exercised a waiver in that law to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv.
“Today, we finally acknowledge the obvious that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” the U.S. president said. “We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions,” he added in a not-that-veiled jab at Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
That shot at the last three diplomats in chief was vintage Trump. So, too, were other parts of his Jerusalem address from the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room, which was noticeably decked out for Christmas.
He said those three chief executives signed the law’s waivers every six months “based on facts as they understood them at the time.”
“Nevertheless, the record is in. We are no closer to the lasting peace agreement” than the day Congress sent Clinton the Jerusalem Embassy Act, Trump said. He contended it would be “folly to assume that” his administration should follow “the exact same formula” as the previous three U.S. administrations in search of an Israeli-Palestinian peace pact and expect “a better result.”
The Jerusalem decision also carried the hallmarks of the 45th president in its basis in Israel’s right — as a “sovereign country,” as Trump put it — to select its own capital city. The comment was reminiscent of ones he made during his recent swing through Asia, when he defended his “America first” governing philosophy and urged Asian countries to make decisions on trade based on a similar viewpoint and aggressive pursuit of their own interests over ones common to multiple countries.
“Acknowledging this fact” is “essential” to the peace process, he said, adding that Jerusalem is the “capital the Jewish people established in ancient times.” In the president’s mind, his May trip to Israel and Palestinian Authority-controlled areas showed that “Jerusalem [is] the seat of modern Israeli government,” a city that is home to its government agencies and the official residences of its prime minister and president.
“Many visiting U.S. presidents, secretaries of State and military leaders have met their counterparts in Jerusalem, as I did earlier this year,” he noted.
The White House made its decision after a months-long review process, and without fear of sizable congressional backlash.
A senior administration official who briefed reporters on the decision Tuesday evening noted that “10 successive Congresses” have reaffirmed the 1995 law in various ways, adding the Senate in June unanimously passed a resolution (90-0) that is reflected in Trump’s decision.
That bipartisan resolution had 17 co-sponsors, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer. “Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel in which the rights of every ethnic and religious group are protected,” it states. “There has been a continuous Jewish presence in Jerusalem for [three] millennia.”
Indeed, the support for such a move was still bipartisan.
“Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel, something that the United States Congress has reaffirmed and a fact of history that cannot be denied. Our country must play a constructive role in supporting Israel as it seeks the peace and security its people deserve by continuing to promote a two-state solution through direct, bilateral negotiations that will end any question of Jerusalem’s status,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said after Trump’s announcement.
The ornate room in the executive mansion featured several large Christmas trees, the familiar blue presidential podium and a table at which Trump signed his second Jerusalem Embassy Act waiver — which he will do every six months until a new embassy is erected in no fewer than three years. But the elephant in the geopolitical room still dominated the scene: Trump’s decision to buck the advice of America’s closest Muslim allies — including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — and make the move just as sources say his administration was making progress in its Middle East peace push.
“He’s undercutting his own efforts at peacemaking. That’s the reality,” said Democratic Rep. Peter Welch, a member of the House Oversight National Security Subcommittee. “In the area of the efforts in the Middle East, I’m positive about the actions he’s taking. [His team] has been having success at gaining the trust of the Palestinians.”
During an interview minutes before Trump’s formal announcement, Welch said Palestinian officials speak highly of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, the senior White House adviser who is leading the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort, and Jason Greenblatt, the administration’s top Middle East peace negotiator.
“You need trust to get at the critical issues if you want to have any hope of a two-state solution. This action is highly provocative,” the Vermont Democrat said. “The reality is Israel controls Jerusalem, yes. But the city is also highly significant to Jews, Christians and Muslims. … This is very provocative move in the eyes to Muslims in the regions, and to some of our closest allies in that region.”
For Welch and other skeptics, the head-scratching question is this, in his words: “Why take an action that even our Arab allies view as dangerous? It’s a finger in the eye to a lot of people in the region.”
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that allocates the annual State Department budget from which the new embassy likely will be funded, called the decision a “terrible mistake.”
“I think it, I’m sure, overjoyed major contributors” to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, Leahy told reporters Wednesday morning. “But it was a bad mistake, and I think the fact of the reactions … from the Jordanians on, shows how much it’s going to hamper efforts for real peace in the Middle East.”
Asked by a Roll Call reporter if he worries the move will give a boost to Iran and groups like the Islamic State — whom foreign policy experts warn will be able to message, fundraise and recruit off Trump’s decision — Leahy let out a sardonic laugh before answering. “That’s what every leader over there says,” he replied. (Notably, however, that is not what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu contends.)
Previous U.S. presidents have sided with the leaders of not only Jordan, but other close American allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey in opting against the embassy move and formal recognition. The leaders of those countries did just that in recent days, pleading with Trump in a series of telephone conversations to resist his instincts.
But it was the president’s core beliefs in countering Washington’s long-held conventional thinking that won out. In his mind, being open about Jerusalem’s diplomatic status should help — not hold back — the peace process.
He called his decision “the right thing to do” and “something that has to be done.”
“There will, of course, be disagreement and dissent regarding this announcement — but we are confident that ultimately, as we work through these disagreements, we will arrive at a place of greater understanding and cooperation,” Trump said, his mouth becoming dry at points late in the speech for the second time in a few weeks in that very room.
“I also want to make one point very clear: This decision is not intended in any way to reflect a departure” from long-held U.S. policy positions on Jerusalem’s disputed borders or America’s pursuit of a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish one, he said.
Trump said his Jerusalem decision is merely a reflection of what he said is “obvious,” that Jerusalem already is the functional capital of Israel.
The president also said the move should not and is not intended to affect his administration’s stated goals. “The United States would support a two-state solution, if agreed to by both sides,” he said, calling on “both sides to maintain the status quo” at the city’s holy sites.
Always eager to cast himself as the dealmaker in chief, Trump declared that despite shunning the advice of Abbas and other Muslim leaders, he is intent on securing a “great deal” for both sides.
But skeptics wonder just how far back he might have set Kushner and Greenblatt and question whether the decision is rooted in the former reality television star’s penchant to shake things up and generate headlines.
“Being provocative, that’s not a plan, that’s a personality trait,” Welch said. “The trust-building that Greenblatt and Kushner were succeeding at, why undercut that? Why do this to be provocative and throw everyone into disarray?”
“It’s like he wakes up every day and says, ‘Who can I upset today?’ I guess the answer today was the Palestinian Authority, Muslim people in the region and his Sunni allies,” he said. “It just leaves you mystified.”