What on earth is Trump thinking?
That’s a question one asks all too often about the president. But the contradiction between President Donald Trump’s expected announcement that he will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – at the very same time his son-in-law is trying to concoct the “ultimate” deal between Israelis and Palestinians – is downright schizoid.
On the one hand, First Son-in-law Jared Kushner, paired with Trump’s real estate lawyer Jason Greenblatt, have been traversing the Mideast for the last several months trying to come up with a peace plan whose details still remain a secret. But the plan will reportedly emerge early in the new year.
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On the other hand, the future of Jerusalem – which would contain both the Palestinian and Israeli Jewish capitals in any plausible solution – is one of the most sensitive topics in any negotiation. And the issue of sovereignty over Jerusalem’s holy places – sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims – is of concern globally. That’s why none of the 160 countries that has diplomatic relations with Israel recognize Jerusalem as its capital.
No U.S. president has ever recognized Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem because they knew it would block any prospect of an “ultimate peace deal” – the kind of deal that Trump insists that he alone can produce.
“The Israelis and Palestinians have agreed that no side should take actions which preempt a final status agreement,” I was told last week by the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who has met with Kushner and Greenblatt 11 times since September (while he has been recovering from a lung transplant in Virginia). “The United States can’t dictate the outcome of Jerusalem, which should be negotiated by the two sides.”
In 1995 Congress did call for the U.S. embassy to be moved to Jerusalem from its current location in Tel Aviv. But, because the issue was so sensitive, it permitted the president to issue a waiver every six months on moving the embassy, and every president since has done so – including Trump earlier this year.
Yet now the president seems willing to make a move – not just recognition, but setting in process an embassy move – that could spark a surge of anti-American violence in the Muslim world. It could fuel post-ISIS terrorism and strengthen Iran. Trump seems oblivious to pleas this week by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and by close Arab allies such as King Abdullah II of Jordan – and Saudi King Salman, whom Trump considers his new best bud in battling Tehran.
Most strange, Trump seems determined to abort any Kushner peace deal before it is born.
Perhaps the president – in his determination to please his Christian evangelical backers – just doesn’t understand Jerusalem geography. I’m sure he’s been shown maps of the city, but perhaps he was too impatient to study them. So here’s a little background on why this issue is so explosive – and why Trump’s heedless behavior is so bizarre.
Jerusalem has always been holy to the Jewish people. But when the United Nations approved a plan to divide Mandate Palestine into one Palestinian and one Jewish state, it called for the internationalization of Jerusalem – because of its holiness to three billion of people of three faiths.
Arab nations rejected the U.N. plan and invaded mandate Palestine, but Israel triumphed, occupying the west side of the city, where it established its capital. Jordan occupied East Jerusalem and the Old City, including the Western Wall, holy to Jews, and the Temple Mount – holy to both Jews and Muslims.
During the 1967 war, Israel won control of all Jerusalem. But – and here’s the key – since 1967, Israel has annexed the Arab areas of Eastern Jerusalem as well as the Old City – with its holy sites. It has also annexed chunks of adjacent West Bank Palestinian areas, all of which are now included into the Jewish capital.
Yet, if there ever is to be an Israel-Palestine peace, the Palestinians will want their capital to be in the Arab parts of Jerusalem. And some arrangement will have to be made about control of Jerusalem’s holy sites that satisfies both Jews and Arabs.
If Trump recognizes Jerusalem as the Israeli capital – even if he doesn’t use the word undivided – he is effectively endorsing the position of the current Israeli government, which insists that none of its capital city should revert to Palestinian control. And if, as Trump has indicated, he states that the embassy will be moving, that would preclude any future negotiations – full stop.
“It will be over – the whole process,” Erekat said emphatically. “This is an issue for Arabs, and Muslims, and the world – not just Israelis.”
Yet, to feed his domestic base, Trump seems willing to kill the peace process that his son-in-law is promoting. Go figure. Unless he changes his mind, we can presume evangelical votes mean more to him than Kushner, fighting terror, or closing the ultimate peace deal.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She can be contacted at email@example.com.