Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
On Monday, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, the Trump administration is set to shatter decades of US policy toward Jerusalem by opening an embassy in the Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem.
The event – preceded by President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – is seen both by those who love and hate it as a major departure from traditional US diplomacy. And, as is the case with most matters concerning Jerusalem, the decision has been surrounded by all kinds of hyperbole, misconceptions and distortions about the “what nows” and the “whys.”
Here are five politically inconvenient myths about Trump’s decision that need to be retired – permanently.
Myth 1: Trump’s decision on Jerusalem killed the peace process.
Hardly. By the time Trump began making statements about Jerusalem and making plans to move the embassy, the peace process was barely breathing.
Meaningful negotiations between the parties had not taken place for years. The gaps between Israelis and Palestinians on all of the core issues, including borders, refugees, security and particularly Jerusalem, were Grand Canyon-like.
Indeed, by 2017, the prospects of progress between Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas on a two-state solution were slim to none. What the Jerusalem issue did was make an already impossible mission more so. And, in the process, it undermined the credibility and effectiveness of the US as a mediator.
Myth 2: Trump’s decision to open a Jerusalem embassy was part of a peace process strategy.
If so, it’s still not apparent. Despite Trump’s seeming interest in wanting to cut the ultimate deal between Israelis and Palestinians, his statements and actions on the Jerusalem issue consistently reflect personal and political motivations rather than American national interests or those of the negotiations.
Determined to separate himself from his predecessor’s rocky relationship with Israel and eager to placate his base, including the important evangelical constituency cultivated by Vice President Mike Pence, Trump showered the Israelis with goodies – such as visiting the country early in his presidential tenure and recognizing Jerusalem as the capital – and waged a pressure campaign against Palestinians by reducing contributions for Palestinian refugees and placing restrictions on the PLO information office in Washington.
Indeed, had Trump been thinking of the negotiations, his December statement declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel might have addressed Palestinian claims and association with the city, including the possibility of a capital in East Jerusalem.
Myth 3: Trump’s Jerusalem decision doesn’t change the status of the city.
It changes a great deal. Administration officials insist that US policy remains unchanged – the status and boundaries of Jerusalem are still subject to negotiations between the parties. And it’s hard to accept this argument when the plaque on the new embassy says Jerusalem, Israel.
Israel claims control and sovereignty over both east and west. The Trump administration has neither challenged this claim nor sought to criticize ambitious Israeli plans for building in Palestinian areas and taking steps to ensure it is an undivided city.
In my capacity as a Middle East negotiator, I’ve interacted with Netanyahu over the years, and it seems highly unlikely that the Prime Minister will cede any control of Jerusalem to the Palestinians. And reports that the Trump administration will propose transferring several neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to Palestinian control will not substantially change this perception or reality.
Myth 4: Major violence is coming.
Not necessarily in response to the embassy opening… though there is no way to predict whether or not there will be sustained violence or how severe it will be.
For the past six Fridays, Hamas, building on genuine Palestinian misery in Gaza, has orchestrated mass demonstrations along the Israel-Gaza border leading up to next week’s Nakba Day – which commemorates the catastrophe that befell Palestinians with the creation of Israel. These demonstrations have not yet spread to the West Bank or Jerusalem.
They well could. Though, when it comes to Jerusalem, it is usually local issues relating to holy sites that trigger serious violence, such as former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to Haram al-Sharif in 2000 or the placement of metal detectors there in 2017.
And the Palestinian reaction to Trump’s December statement on Jerusalem was relatively restrained. So, it’s not a foregone conclusion that Jerusalem will erupt in sustained violence this time around either.
Myth 5: The Trump administration has ‘taken Jerusalem off the table’
Absolutely not. Various administration officials, including Trump, have used this expression – either to suggest that in declaring Jerusalem Israel’s capital or opening an embassy, the Jerusalem matter has somehow been defused or addressed in a way that will lead to positive results.
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Far from taking it off the table, Jerusalem – the most volatile issue in the negotiations – is now front and center at a time when neither of the parties are willing or able to deal with it. If and when the Trump peace plan is put on the table, the focal point will be what it says about Jerusalem.
Bottom line: Unless the Trump plan includes language very close to the Palestinian narrative, including statehood with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, it’s hard to see the Jerusalem issue as anything but a continuing source of political impasse in negotiations.
And that ensures virtually no deal and the likelihood of violence over Jerusalem in the future.