The United States has long been a contradictory player in Palestinian and Israeli affairs, attempting to broker “peace deals” on the one hand while providing Israel with billions of dollars in military aid and political backing on the other. Now Donald Trump has honed this double-edged US role to a devastating point with his calamitous decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—even as he calls for a two-state solution “if agreed” by both sides.
As always, Trump has his own interests at heart. In one fell swoop, he has managed to placate his major donor Sheldon Adelson, who contributed nearly $40 million to Trump’s election and inauguration, and please both Israel and pro-Israel Christian evangelists, while kicking the can down the road for the next president to deal with. (White House aides say it will take at least three years for a new embassy to be built.) Most important of all for Trump, given his desire to make his mark, he can boast that he has delivered something other presidents have sidestepped for 20 years.
In shredding decades of established policy, Trump doesn’t seem to care a bit that his move jeopardizes his country’s interests in the region—or that it poses a direct threat to the Palestinians. Nor do the basic precepts of international law seem to have crossed his mind. Not only is East Jerusalem considered occupied territory, but the international community does not recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Under the 1947 United Nations partition plan, which provided an international imprimatur for Israel’s creation, Jerusalem is a corpus separatum with an international status. The consensus was that this status should not be changed without agreement between the sides. As a result, no country in the world maintains an embassy in the city.
So where does this leave the Palestinians? Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has anchored his hopes to US mediation since he assumed power over a decade ago. But he immediately rejected Trump’s speech—Trump’s lip service to “peace” and promise to hold off on final-status issues were apparently cold comfort—and declared that the United States could no longer serve as mediator. But the reality is that Abbas has nurtured few diplomatic alternatives to the United States. When the global outrage quiets down, he may find himself increasingly isolated and weakened, sidelined by the machinations of the so-called Arab Quartet (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt) in tandem with Washington.