When President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital Wednesday – the first American president ever to do so – he claimed he was abandoning the "failed strategies of the past" that were unable to deliver peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Yet the president outlined no new strategy for peace that would include his new position on Jerusalem. Indeed, his move – along with his directive to the State Department to begin preparations to move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv – seemed more oriented toward pleasing his evangelical base (and key Republican donor Sheldon Adelson) than achieving peace.
Moreover, it undermines any slim chance First-Son-in-Law Jared Kushner, along with Trump lawyer David Greenblatt – who have been traversing the Mideast for months in order to devise a new peace plan — will produce the "ultimate" deal Trump has requested.
To understand why, let's take a look at what the speech did and didn't say.
The president claimed he was only recognizing reality – "that Jerusalem is Israel's capital." And indeed, western Jerusalem was the Jewish state's capital from the time of its inception, just as ancient Jerusalem was the capital of the Jewish people in the biblical era (something many Palestinians deny).
But what the president didn't say – and one reason why no country that recognizes Israel also recognizes Jerusalem as its capital – is that the city's eastern sector consists mainly of Arab areas that were annexed after the 1967 war between Israel and the Arabs. Indeed, an estimated 40 percent of Jerusalem's residents do not have Israeli citizenship – because they are Palestinians.
The Palestinians also want Jerusalem to be the capital of their state – meaning if there ever were peace, Jerusalem would have to be divided.
What the president also didn't say is that the Old City of Jerusalem (which Israel also regained after the 1967 war) is territory that is hotly contested, because it contains sites holy to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
That is why the issue of who controls Jerusalem's sovereignty is so sensitive, and must be negotiated in any peace talks. It is also why any hint that Trump supports permanent Israeli sovereignty over Muslim holy places can set off violence in the Islamic world.
No wonder Trump's CIA director and secretaries of state and defense all opposed Trump's making this speech now.
True, the president stated near the end of his speech that he was "not taking a position" on the specific Jerusalem boundaries that Israel would retain if peace were negotiated. He said "the resolution of contested borders" was up to the parties involved. And he added that "the United States would support a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides."
But those last comments must be taken with more than a grain of salt. Israel is constructing settlements in Palestinian areas around the edges of Jerusalem that have almost sealed the city off from the Palestinian population of the West Bank. This will make it nearly impossible to imagine any two-state solution that would permit Palestinians to establish their capital within the city's boundaries.
Those Jewish settlements – and their clear purpose – have been a source of friction with previous Democratic and Republican administrations. But the word settlement never appeared in Trump's speech. Indeed, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Trump's lawyer friend David Friedman (the third member of the Kushner-Greenblatt team), is avidly pro-settlement. Friedman says West Bank settlements "are a part of Israel."
So to endorse Jerusalem as Israel's capital, while ignoring the complex question of its Arab population, or the settlement ring around the city, is disingenuous. Israeli officials have already made clear they see Trump's speech as vindicating their positions. The speech eliminated any minimal prospect, if such still existed, that Trump or Kushner could be seen as impartial negotiators. Full stop.
Already rumors are circulating in the Israeli and Arab press that the Kushner plan will tilt heavily toward Israel, proposing a Palestinian state with limited sovereignty over noncontiguous parts of the West Bank without East Jerusalem as its capital. This is a proposal that has little meaning and will never fly.
It may be that in an era of Mideast chaos there is no strategy that can deliver a two-state solution. And it may be that there are no Israeli or Arab leaders able or willing to deal at this time. In that case, the best option for the United States would be to promote a strategy that left open a chance for two states after the Mideast calms down.
But Trump's Jerusalem speech – far from delivering a new approach – closes the door to negotiations in the near term or the long term. It advances a one-state "solution" – something Trump has said he wouldn't mind – where Palestinians will outnumber Jews in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. At that point, Israel will have to decide whether to give them citizenship or rule over a disenfranchised majority.
Trump called his speech "very fresh thinking." That it is not.