WASHINGTON – In quiet deliberations over whether to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, to move the American Embassy there from Tel Aviv, or both, President Donald Trump and his Middle East peace team determined that the Palestinian Authority needs the US too much to walk away from it.
The Americans are convinced that their plan to revive negotiations toward the ultimate deal can survive what they expect will be a temporary burst of anger across the Arab world.
White House officials told The Jerusalem Post
that Trump’s decision was made separately from a deliberative, 10-month effort to restart direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians led by Jared Kushner
, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and Jason Greenblatt, his special representative for international negotiations. Both men served in consultative roles in the Jerusalem debate alongside the president’s National Security Council and his political supporters.
But Trump’s dramatic action on Wednesday was ultimately driven by the president himself.
“This was not designed,” one White House official said. “This was a separate decision from the [peace] process. But as you can see from the president’s speech, we remain incredibly committed.”
Administration officials told the Post
they take seriously Palestinian and Arab concerns and understand the reaction that has followed Trump’s speech. But they hope their anger will pass, and expect Ramallah in particular will realize that the Palestinians' only chance of achieving sovereignty is with the help of Washington. They believe Arab world powers no longer prioritize the Palestinian issue in such a way that it will affect bilateral relations – and furthermore still believe their leverage over their Arab allies, seeking help pushing back against Iran, will keep their peace process on track.
And they also believe that Israel’s presence in Jerusalem is right and just, regardless of how negotiations ultimately settle its final status.
“We know there will be short-term pain,” the official said, “but in the long term, this action will help with those conversations.”
Trump’s historic address broke from 70 years of US policy on Jerusalem – consistent with international standards – which left the fate of the ancient city up for Israelis and Palestinians to decide. Virtually every government in the world opposed the move, warning it could destabilize the region and make forging Israeli-Palestinian peace even harder than it was before.
Israel insists the city must remain its undivided capital, and the Palestinians demand a capital of their own in its eastern districts – but Israel’s seat of government stays in Jerusalem either way, Trump concluded, leading to his decision.
“He reiterated his commitment to peace, and nothing in his speech prevents a peace process from happening – and we made very clear that we’re not prejudging any final-status negotiations,” an official said.
And yet Trump faced pushback not only from his closest foreign allies – from Britain, France and Germany in Europe to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt in the Middle East – but also from his own cabinet members, who questioned his grasp of the details of the conflict and eventually asked him for a week’s delay to prepare security at US diplomatic facilities worldwide, once Trump made clear his decision was final. Had there been no week’s delay, the announcement might have come on November 29, the date of the 1947 Partition Plan vote.
In particular, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis opposed the move, several American news organizations reported on Thursday.
“The recognition is just a recognition of reality,” Tillerson told reporters in Vienna. “All of Israel’s government offices are largely in Jerusalem already, so the US is just recognizing the reality of that.
“I think it’s important, though, in the context of those remarks that the president also said the US would support a two-state solution if that is the desire of the two parties,” added the secretary. “And he also said this does not in any way finalize the status of Jerusalem – that that’s still up to the parties to discuss.”
Tillerson is responsible for the security of thousands of diplomats in embassies and consulates now in the crosshairs of furious protesters: Individual embassies and the Overseas Security Advisory Council, or OSAC, released security alerts warning of violence in more than two dozen nations on four continents in the wake of Trump’s announcement, while the State Department released a worldwide travel warning to US citizens.
But Kushner and Greenblatt, not Tillerson, are leading the administration’s effort to restart peace talks – and while the first phase of their project is incomplete, they have already compiled hundreds of pages of detailed US proposals addressing the thorniest issues in the conflict.
They expect to proceed with their plan, unchanged, once tempers have subdued.
“We’re going to still keep our heads down and present our plan when the time is right,” a White House official said. “We believe the world will ultimately realize that the US plays an essential role in facilitating peace.”
A senior White House official said that the peace team was fully aware of Trump’s thinking and “in the loop” during his deliberations, even if the team was not primarily advocating for the move or proposing it as a part of its broader strategy to reconstitute a peace process.
“Certain parties are going to react the way they need to react,” that official said. “We expect bumps along the way.”
But only time will tell whether Palestinian reactions to Trump’s new policy amount to a bump in the road or a cliff, off which goes Trump’s other campaign promise: Clinching the deal of all deals in reaching Middle East peace.
Three “days of rage” began on Thursday in reaction to Trump’s speech across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where protests attracted hundreds, and Hamas, which governs the coastal strip, called for a new intifada
– a violent uprising – against Israel.
Trump’s peace team has been advocating an “outside-in” approach to the conflict that relies on the support of Arab allies – strategically aligned with Israel for the first time over Iran – applying their significant weight on Palestinian leadership to return to serious negotiations. But all of those governments that have participated in the effort strongly condemned Trump’s actions on Wednesday, warning they would imperil any peace plan he has in store.
Perhaps the most damning criticism came from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
, who said that the US was effectively withdrawing from its historic role as fair arbiter in the conflict. He recalled the PLO delegation in Washington and held emergency talks with the Jordanian king, who serves as guardian of the Aksa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
“The US administration with this statement has chosen to go against all the international and bilateral agreements, and to ignore the international consensus,” Abbas said. “The United States is withdrawing from the role it has played in the peace process.”
In another sign of Palestinian discontent, a senior official in Abbas’s Fatah party said that US Vice President Mike Pence, due to visit the region later this month, “is unwelcome in Palestine.”
“In the name of Fatah I say that we will not welcome Trump’s deputy in the Palestinian Territories,” Jibril Rajoub said.
“He asked to meet [Abbas] on the 19 of this month in Bethlehem – such a meeting will not take place.”