From the standpoint of producing Middle East peace, United States President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise occupied Jerusalem as the capital of Israel can only be called irrational. It raises the risk of violence that could derail peace efforts by his son-in-law Jared Kushner. It makes it harder for crucial US allies like Saudi Arabia to side with Trump and push the Palestinians to a deal. It won’t make Israel feel more secure. And it will hearten right-wingers in the US and Israel whose endgame is actually to avoid a two-state solution.
Yet, there is one possible silver lining to the coming storm — a consequence of the decision that may affect the calculus of the peace process more positively. Trump, intentionally or not, is signalling to all concerned that he is unafraid of backing Israel in ways that go further than the traditional pro-Israel US stance.
That’s a huge threat to the Palestinians — if peace talks fail, Trump could be prepared to support Israeli annexation of more of the West Bank. And it’s an implicit promise to the Israelis that also contains an implicit threat: Given how generous Trump is being to Israel, its leaders had better agree to whatever deal Trump will seek to impose on them — or else.
To see why Trump’s move is so extraordinary, you have to understand that the recognition of “Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital amounts to a recognition of Israel’s unilateral annexation of occupied East Jerusalem — and its subsequent expansion of Jerusalem municipality far beyond the cities’ traditional limits, to include multiple Palestinian villages and newly-built Jewish neighbourhoods.
If recognising occupied Jerusalem as the capital only meant acknowledging that the Knesset and the rest of Israel’s governing institutions are there, it wouldn’t be quite so big a deal. They’ve been in the western part of the city since Israel’s independence in 1948. Countries presumably have the right to choose any city they want as their capital. The tricky part is that since 1967, Israel has considered East and West Jerusalem to be a single, unified city, at least as a legal matter. The act of annexing Jordanian territory into Israel has not been recognised by the international community, including the US.
Israel has deepened the problem by successive further expansions of occupied Jerusalem that themselves have come with further annexation. Today, the Jerusalem border extends almost all the way to Bethlehem, south of the city. When you drive from occupied Jerusalem to Bethlehem, there’s almost no noticeable break until you get to the Israeli security barrier and cross into Palestine. And from Bethlehem, you can see new occupied Jerusalem neighbourhoods looming on nearby hills.
Trump’s move carries meaning for the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators alike.
It hints that Trump is willing to threaten the Palestinians with endorsement of Israeli annexation of more Palestinian territory — a nightmare from the Palestinian perspective. The fact that Trump is so blatantly pro-Israel suggests that the Palestinians had better bend over backward to accept whatever deal is on offer, lest the consequences be dire.
For some in Israel, the idea that Trump could support annexation might sound like a good reason to block a deal. But that would be a mistaken reading of the tea leaves. Of course the US will insist that it is merely an honest broker. But to get the Israelis and the Palestinians to ‘yes’ is going to require strong-arming both sides, probably more than once.
The basis for the secret threat to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to be that, as the most nakedly pro-Israel American president ever, Trump has the clout to blame Netanyahu if he is truly responsible for the breakdown of the deal. Trump can say what no other president could: That the world, including pro-Israel American Jews, will believe him if he says Netanyahu is the problem and that he should no longer be Prime Minister. Trump could even credibly threaten that US support for Israel would be substantially reduced in the future if Netanyahu blinks.
Remember: “America first”, which means Trump first, is perhaps the only principle that can trump Trump’s pro-Israel approach. Israel will need to remember it, too. The Israelis have got the recognition they wanted. Now they will have to pay for it, one way or another.
Noah Feldman is a professor of Constitutional and International Law at Harvard University. His seven books include The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President and Cool War: The Future of Global Competition.