Trump's Jerusalem Decision Will Not Jump-Start Peace Process
Jonathan Sciarcon is an associate professor of history and Judaic studies in the Department of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. He has taught at the University of Denver since 2010. Sciarcon's research focuses on Ottoman Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He teaches courses on the rise of Islam in the Middle East, the modern Middle East, the Crusades and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Since President Donald J. Trump’s announcement that the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and plans to relocate its embassy there, supporters, and even some detractors, of the president have claimed this move may jump-start peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. It would apparently do so by frightening Palestinians and showing their leaders that America’s patience with them has been exhausted.
The argument, however, is a flawed one that misunderstands both the state of the peace process and the reasons for the president’s recent decision.
At present, there is almost no chance of good faith initial negotiations regarding a two-state solution. There are many reasons for this, but I will mention what I consider to be the three most important.
First, the structure of Israel’s political system, along with the rightward drift of the country’s Jewish voters over the past two decades, make it nearly impossible for a willing government to halt or dismantle large settlement blocs.
Second, divisions among Palestinian parties, which all suffer from a lack of democratic legitimacy, guarantee that no single leader has the authority to make key concessions.
Third, the United States itself is poorly positioned to act as any kind of legitimate broker as both Republican and Democratic leaders are unwilling to pay the potential electoral consequences or deal with ferocious bipartisan public criticism that would accompany any decision to pressure Israel into making significant concessions.
Those who argue that President Trump’s move may give life to a dead peace process are ignoring the structural reasons for the lack of such a process’s existence in the first place. If anything, by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital the president has likely made it harder for Palestinians to come to the negotiating table, as he has removed one of the few issues the Palestinians can leverage to win concessions from Israel.
The last real issue Palestinian leaders now have in their negotiating tool kit is the right of return. As a result, ordinary Palestinians would likely view attempts by their leaders to negotiate with Israel as attempts by the former to remain in the good graces of American and Israeli leaders in order to maintain the charade that they are politically relevant.
It must also be mentioned that the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was not a result of some grand foreign policy strategy. Rather, it was done for purely political reasons.
As a candidate Trump, like nearly all other past presidential candidates in both major parties in recent decades, promised to move the US embassy to Jerusalem in order to prove his pro-Israel bona fides. Past candidates who made these promises, such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama, reneged on them once in office because of concerns over how such a move would impact regional and even international stability along with America’s own diplomatic standing in eyes of key allies.
Unlike his predecessors, however, President Trump has had to deal with historically low approval ratings for a first-year president. Rather than emulate his predecessors on Jerusalem he has broken from them in order to shore up support among his evangelical Christian base.
He has also been influenced by close Jewish associates, and right-wing Jewish leaders, many of whom share extreme pro-Israel, pro-Likud views. Neither most American evangelicals nor most right-wing American Jewish supporters of Israel want the United States to work as an even-handed broker for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Indeed, many members of these groups do not support any kind of peace process. Those who assert that the president’s decision may lead to peace must reckon with both the structural obstacles to peace as well as the domestic political reasons for the president’s move.