Three visual elements caught the eye when US President Donald Trump announced his decision on Wednesday to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and begin plans to move the embassy.
The first were the Christmas trees in the room. The second was the manner in which Trump – famously known as someone who ad libs during speeches – appeared to be reading this announcement word for word from a carefully crafted script. And the third was the presence over his shoulder of Vice President Mike Pence.
Pence, an Evangelical Christian, is an unabashed, unapologetic supporter of Israel who ascribes religious meaning to the rebirth of the Jewish state.
Those who say that Trump’s decision removes the United States as an honest broker in the Middle East peace process and who see the removal of this “honest broker” tag from the Americans as something that is a negative, should consider what Pence said three years ago in Jerusalem.
At a town hall event put together by Republicans Abroad Israel, Pence – then the governor of Indiana and a possible 2016 presidential candidate – said that America should not aspire to be an “honest broker” in the Middle East, but rather communicate to the world that while it wants an honest and fair solution to the conflict, “we are on the side of Israel.”
Pence said the US can “deal honestly with people on all sides of the equation,” while making clear what “side of the table” it is on.
There are those who will argue that Trump did exactly that with his Jerusalem declaration on Wednesday night.
Interestingly, Trump’s proclamation about correcting a historic anomaly and letting Israel enjoy the right, like every other country in the world, to decide where its capital is, was only one of two significant developments in Washington this week touching upon the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
True, that proclamation garnered banner headlines, triggered condemnation from European states-people, sparked furious responses from Palestinian, Arab and Muslim leaders, and led to the declaration of three “days of rage.”
But another significant development took place on Tuesday when the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Taylor Force Act, named after the US citizen stabbed to death by terrorists in Tel Aviv in 2016.
That bill, which is likely to pass easily in the Senate and be signed into law by Trump, would significantly cut the annual $280 million in US assistance to the Palestinian Authority unless it stops paying subsidies to jailed terrorists and their families.
Unlike Trump’s proclamation on Jerusalem – which at its core is symbolic – this bill could substantially change things on the ground, cutting the PA off from significant Washington funding.
Taken together, these two actions – as well as the recent saga in Washington regarding moves to close the PLO office there – appear to be an attempt by this administration to set new ground rules.
The Palestinians and their supporters are crying foul, saying that with these steps, the US is removing itself from being an honest broker. But Pence’s words from three years ago show that, at least in his mind – and he is not just a bit player when it comes to US policy on the Middle East – the US need not aspire to fill that honest broker role.
This approach is a break from that of the previous administration, which came into office wanting to burnish its honest broker credentials by famously putting public “daylight” in its relations with Israel. But that approach didn’t work, and the US – an honest broker under US president Barack Obama – was unable to nudge the peace process forward.
Trump’s speech, indeed, was a clear signal of a major adjustment of approach. But when considering the speech, it is important to look at what was left out, no less than at what was put in.
What does the speech do?
First, as Trump said, it changes Washington’s overall diplomatic approach, signaling that this administration is looking at the Mideast through a different pair of glasses, not relying on the well-worn but failed assumptions of the past.
“When I came into office, I promised to look at the world’s challenges with open eyes and very fresh thinking. We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies of the past. Old challenges demand new approaches,” Trump said. “My announcement today marks the beginning of a new approach to conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Second, it reflects recognition of a simple fact: Despite what anyone may say, Jerusalem was the ancient capital of the Jewish people, and for the last 70 years has served as the capital of the modern State of Israel.
Or, as Trump put it, “We finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality.”
Third, the speech gave a long-awaited nod by Trump – who up until now was rather reticent to do so – to the idea of a two-state solution.
“The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides,” he said. “The United States would support a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides.”
But what did the speech not do?
First, while nodding toward a two-state solution, it did not give the Palestinians much of a consolation prize.
There was some speculation that any US move on recognizing Jerusalem would be coupled with demands of Israel. But none of those demands were evident in Trump’s speech. That does not mean that as the administration moves forward with a peace plan being put together by Jared Kushner and his team, those demands won’t surface. It just means that they have not publicly surfaced yet.
Second, Trump made clear that he would not be moving the embassy immediately, perhaps in an attempt to soften the blow and not force the Sunni states that quietly cooperate with Israel into a corner whereby their publics demand that they end all contact with Israel.
Some have said that all the US needs to do to move its embassy is replace the sign of the US Consulate in Jerusalem and call it an embassy instead of a consulate, and the deed would be done.
Trump chose not to go down that path, preferring instead a long, drawn-out process that will necessitate “hiring architects, engineers and planners,” a process that will take years. Moving an embassy is a huge logistical move that could, according to White House officials, take up to six or even eight years. Over time, things look different.
Third, and most significantly, the speech did not declare all united Jerusalem – east and west – Israel’s capital. It kept the geography of the city ambiguous.
“We are not taking a position on any final-status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved,” Trump said.
The reason for that omission is obvious. To paraphrase what Pence said three years ago, the US – while making clear what “side of the table” it is on – still wants the ability to “deal honestly with people on all sides of the equation.”
While Washington believes this balancing act is possible, its huge task now will be to convince the Palestinians and key Arab allies.