Could an Embassy in Jerusalem Bring Us Closer to Peace?

As President-elect Donald J. Trump prepares to assume office, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been forced onto his agenda by President Obama’s decision to have the United States abstain on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemned Israeli settlements.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly declared his desire to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians, saying he viewed it as the “ultimate deal.” But he has also pledged to do something that will most likely impede brokering such a settlement: move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israel considers undivided Jerusalem its capital, but its eastern half is treated by most of the world, including the United States, as occupied territory.

Moving the embassy has been promised before by winning presidential candidates, but abandoned once they entered office and came to understand its complexity and the extreme reactions it would provoke. It looks as though the Trump White House could be different. Mr. Trump’s pick as ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman, has said that he looks forward to officially recognizing Jerusalem as “Israel’s eternal capital.”

It might seem that these two desires — to cut the “ultimate deal” and to move the embassy — contradict each other. Indeed, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital could be disastrous. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, Mr. Trump could both fulfill his pledge and move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward if he plays his cards right.

In previous peace talks, negotiations over the status of Jerusalem have been left for last, when progress on the other, less contentious issues might have made each side more amenable to accepting the legitimacy of the other side’s aspirations in the holy city. The new president, who seems attracted to disruption, can break this rule, using the embassy move to jump-start the moribund peace negotiations and deal with the thorniest issue first.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews walking among Palestinians in Jerusalem’s Old City. Oded Balilty/Associated Press
Ultra-Orthodox Jews walking among Palestinians in Jerusalem’s Old City. Oded Balilty/Associated Press

Jerusalem is contentious because Israelis and Palestinians deny one another’s claims in the city. Both sides demand sovereignty over the area in the Old City known as the Temple Mount to Jews, and the Haram al-Sharif to Arabs. The Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, stands there atop the ruins of Judaism’s holiest of holies. Similarly, some 300,000 Israelis now live in areas of Jerusalem that Israel captured and annexed in the 1967 war. But the Palestinians view East Jerusalem as occupied territory and claim it, with its approximately 300,000 Arab residents, for the capital of their state.

Despite these zero-sum assertions, a rational compromise isn’t difficult to envision.

The undivided city could become the shared capital of the two states with Jewish suburbs under Israeli sovereignty and Arab suburbs under Palestinian sovereignty, an idea advanced both by President Bill Clinton in his last days in office and by Secretary of State John Kerry in his speech last week outlining his principles for a peace settlement. The area bounded by the walls of the Old City, meanwhile, could be administered by a special regime that maintained the religious status quo and ensured that the three religious authorities continued to administer their respective holy sites, an idea supported by President George W. Bush during negotiations between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.

Such rational compromises have, to date, not proven acceptable to either side. Mr. Trump could change that by using the embassy decision to inject some urgency into negotiations over Jerusalem.

He could begin by announcing, as promised, that he had decided to begin the process of moving the embassy to western Jerusalem. But he would need to make a parallel announcement that he would establish an embassy to the state of Palestine in East Jerusalem when a final status agreement is reached.

That would not quell the furor over moving the embassy. Indeed, it would likely increase it. So, Mr. Trump would also need to declare that he was willing to suspend the embassy move while the Israelis and Palestinians negotiate Jerusalem’s status.

The Dome of the Rock at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City. Ahmad Gharabli/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The Dome of the Rock at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City. Ahmad Gharabli/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

He could then invite President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan — two Arab leaders keen to curry favor with the new president — to join him in convening a summit meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. They could then establish a three-month timetable to conclude the direct negotiations. During that period, Israel would need to freeze housing construction and demolition in East Jerusalem.

To give the Trump administration leverage on both the Israelis and the Palestinians, the president could declare that if either side were unwilling to negotiate in good faith, it would forfeit American recognition of its capital in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas would then have an explanation for their outraged publics: They were accepting Mr. Trump’s invitation to save Jerusalem, rather than to surrender it.

If the two sides failed to reach agreement, the United States, Egypt and Jordan could resort to a United Nations Security Council resolution, not to condemn any party, but rather to set out the parameters of a rational solution on Jerusalem: Israel would be asked to accept a Palestinian capital in the Arab parts of East Jerusalem, and in return, the Palestinians, and all other members of the international community, would be asked to recognize Israel’s capital in all of Jewish Jerusalem. The resolution would also need to call for a special regime to be established in the Old City to protect the status quo for the religious sites.

The United States could then set up two embassies in the undivided city, one on the west side for Israel and the other on the east side for Palestine. If the status of Jerusalem were resolved, it would open the way to negotiation on other final-status issues, like the borders of a Palestinian state. Arab countries would also be more likely to help with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if they saw that the issue they care about most — Jerusalem — was resolved.

Far-fetched? Perhaps. But consider the alternative: If Mr. Trump, as one of his first acts in office, moves the embassy to Jerusalem without simultaneously making efforts to jump-start peace talks, it would likely incite an explosion of anger among Palestinians and serve as a rallying cry for Islamic extremists from Tehran to Raqqa, Syria. American embassies and citizens in Muslim countries might well become targets of violent demonstrations. Stoked by Hamas, confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis could erupt in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Arab and Muslim leaders would most likely demand that Mr. Trump rescind the decision. And Mr. Trump’s laudable aspiration to be the ultimate peacemaker would evaporate.

For somebody who cares deeply about winning, this is a losing proposition. Mr. Trump should either defer the decision for now, or combine it with a carefully planned diplomatic initiative to resolve Jerusalem first.

Martin Indyk, the executive vice president of the Brookings Institution, was ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration and special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the Obama administration.

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