Trump recognizes Jerusalem, but experts have trouble spotting his endgame

WASHINGTON — When US President Donald Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on Wednesday afternoon, he made clear he was doing so because decades of US policy avoiding that “reality” had failed to bring about peace.

“After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result,” he said in a speech from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House.

What Trump did not make clear, though, is how recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the embassy might advance the cause of peace.

Despite the fact that Trump said his policy shift was “the beginning of a new approach to conflict between Israel and the Palestinians” and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the move as bringing peace “a step closer,” several veteran Middle East peace negotiators said Trump’s announcement was lacking both in its content and in the way it was delivered.

Ambassador Dennis Ross, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator, said if Trump was determined to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it would have been better done in the framework of restarting moribund peace negotiations.

“All things being equal, it would have been best to do this from the context of the plan that they are obviously going to present,” Ross told The Times of Israel.

“One of the things that Jared Kushner made clear on Sunday is that they’re going to come with a plan, they are going to deal with the big issues, and if they had done it that way, perhaps it might be easier for the Palestinians and the Arabs to see what they might be getting in the plan,” Ross said, referring to remarks by Trump’s son-in-law and policy aide at the Saban Forum over the weekend. “So here, you take a very sensitive, emotional issue, and with not a lot of preparation in advance, you put them on the defensive.”

Indeed, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas quickly responded to the speech by saying Trump’s move was “a declaration of withdrawal from the role [the US] has played in the peace process.”

Foreseeing that his recognition of Jerusalem might be perceived that way, Trump tried to quell concerns that he was foreclosing that outcome, even declaring support for a two-state solution for the first time, so long as both sides agree to it.

“The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides,” Trump said.

But David Makovsky, an Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiator in the Obama administration, said it would take more than a one-off statement from Trump to win back the Arab world’s trust.

Ross gauged that rather than have an actual diplomatic endgame in mind, Trump was more just trying to set himself apart from his predecessors.“I think it’s very important to draw a distinction to what this is and what this isn’t,” Makovsky said. “It’s really important to mitigate violence by having White House officials going on Arabic media and making it clear that this is not about pre-judging the final sovereignty over the whole city.”

“It’s just like with the JCPOA,” Ross said, referring to the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “He doesn’t like these waivers.”

In October, Trump “decertified” the nuclear accord, as he was set to verify to Congress, under American law, that Tehran was complying with the agreement.

“When he exercises the waivers, he tends to look like every other president,” Ross said. “I think he likes to show that he’s not like every other president.”

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