President Donald Trump’s declaration about Jerusalem on 6 December 2017 gave rise to instant and almost universal condemnation. Western governments saw it as an unnecessary provocation, guaranteed to set back the prospects of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and likely to generate violent protests in the Arab world. Muslim condemnation was immediate. Although notably muted from Sunni Arab states, it was at its strongest from Turkey, Iran and the Palestinian Authority. At a specially convened meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas were vehement in their denunciation of Trump’s statement. In calling for it to be reversed or rejected by the United Nations, they solicited world opinion to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. In extreme Muslim eyes Jerusalem is a Muslim and Christian city with no Jewish connection to it. They maintain that all evidence to the contrary is based on falsehoods.
All the adverse criticism centered on the assumption that Trump had denied Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, in whole or in part, as the capital of a future state of Palestine. Is this borne out by what he said, or indeed intends?
It seems clear that he came into office determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. “We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies,” he said. So he set up a team charged with looking at the Israeli-Palestinian dispute with fresh eyes, and with seeking a new approach to solving it.
The peace team, led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, set about their task. Meanwhile Trump himself looked at the issue of Jerusalem.
It was as far back as 1995 that Congress adopted the Jerusalem Embassy Act, urging the federal government to recognize that Jerusalem is Israel's capital, and to relocate the American embassy to that city. This act passed Congress by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. Yet for over 20 years, every previous American president had exercised the law's waiver and refused to move the US embassy.
Presidents issued these waivers under the belief that delaying the recognition of Jerusalem would advance the cause of peace. But, said Trump, “the record is in. After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result. Therefore, I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”
His argument was that acknowledging the right of Israel, as a sovereign nation, to nominate its own capital was a necessary condition for achieving peace. But he was very careful to point out that in doing so, and in relocating the US capital to Jerusalem, he was not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders.
“Those questions,” he said, “are up to the parties involved. The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides. I intend to do everything in my power to help forge such an agreement.”
In short, while extending US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he left wide open the possibility of a later recognition of the whole city, or some agreed portion, as the capital of a sovereign Palestine. It is this vital aspect of Trump’s statement that has been deliberately overlooked, and is never referred to by those unwilling to compromise, or who, against every sort of evidence, maintain that the Jewish people have no historic connection to the Holy Land.
The rejectionists also close their eyes to the obvious illogicality of maintaining that East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank. is occupied Palestinian territory, while denying that West Jerusalem must, therefore, be part of sovereign Israel.
In making his announcement, Trump emphasised to his global audience: “This decision is not intended in any way to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement. We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians.”
Jared Kushner and his team have been beavering away for nearly two years, building a new peace deal brick by painstaking brick. They have announced that it is virtually complete, and are ready to unveil it when the time seems opportune. Yet without seeing the deal, or knowing anything of its details, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has denounced it as “a slap in the face”, and declared that he would not participate in any peace effort initiated by the US because of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration. He ignores Trump’s insistence that the US has taken no position on the extent of Israeli sovereignty in the city or the resolution of contested borders.
In short, this is rejection for rejection’s sake. Taking Trump’s words at their face value, there is no reason why – to posit one possibility among many others − a peace deal involving a two-state solution could not be brokered, with an agreed contiguous state in the West Bank achieved by mutually agreed land swaps, and also in due course a link to Gaza. Either the whole of Jerusalem could be a shared capital with Israel, or a Palestinian capital could be created from a new Al Quds municipality comprising East Jerusalem and its outlying Arab neighbourhoods.
All that is needed is a will for peace, and a clear-eyed view of the possibilities on offer.