On Thursday December 14, 2017, The SETA Foundation at Washington DC hosted a panel discussion, “The Implications of Trump’s Jerusalem Decision” with Khaled Elginy a Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy; Ilan Goldenberg, Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at Center for a New American Security; Joyce Karam, Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat and The National; and Mark Perry, an Independent Author and analyst at Politico and The American Conservative. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Kilic Kanat, the Research Director of The SETA Foundation.
Ilan Goldenberg explained why the Trump made the decision to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Goldenberg noted that it was worth taking a moment to understand the diplomatic calculus that this decision required. He said that Trump’s approach to the Palestine/Israel issue is a regular approach that any Republican administration would have taken; Kushner did the listener tour there, met with Palestinian refugees, and met with people from different political spectrums. However, the details of the peace plan are unknown and won’t be released for another few months. When the President decided to make the declaration, and pushed for it, Goldenberg explained that Trump basically pushed a grenade that will make it very hard to go forward. Goldenberg specified that Trump is not letting this issue deescalate either, as he just accused the Palestinians of not wanting to negotiate. He could have been smart about it, and announce the Jerusalem decision at the same time of announcing the specifics of a peace process. Goldenberg provided examples of other ways that Trump could have recognized Jerusalem; Trump could have said that the US recognizes the two states and Jerusalem as both capitals, or something big and symbolic and important for the Palestinians. Goldenberg said that at the end of the day, in any agreement, Jerusalem has to be the capital of both.
Joyce Karam spoke about the regional implications and reactions of Trump’s decision. Karam thought that the decision was largely driven by domestic concerns in order to prop up the President and Vice President, but also probably to help Natanyahu, who is facing charges in Israel and might be indicted. That aside, she said, “when you look at the region, the administration underestimated the reaction to this, we are seeing protests in more than ten Arab capitals.” She claimed that any Middle Easterner can tell you that this issue has the power to unite all Arabs, since the narrative of Jerusalem is very dominant in Arab literature, songs, and poetry. She added that main Christian figures like the Coptic church and the custodian of the Church in Jerusalem have canceled their meetings with the US government officials who were scheduled to visit. Additionally, there is no confirmation that Pence will be going to Bethlehem, and he is not going to Jordan either.
Khaled Elgindy said that what was most striking was the reason behind Trump’s decision was that it was purely domestic. “It was about rallying and satisfying the electoral supporters.” He observed that the more defensive the administration gets, the more likely they are to make these rash decisions. More specifically, the US takes steps that are incompatible with a peace process and a two state solution and they are trying them to fit into the peace process. “The Palestinians are the biggest losers in this,” he explained, “because the administration did not think about the diplomatic and political fallout of the Palestinian leadership.” The administration did not have a real grasp of the implications on the ground in the rest of the Arab world. Elgindy added that there are few public details about the US peace plan and it is not appealing for the Palestinians. He concluded that the political cost for Abbas to agree to a US-brokered peace process has risen so much, and the value of the product has diminished, that agreeing to a US-led negotiations is not appealing anymore.
Mark Perry focused on Trump’s declaration and what it meant for the region and for US foreign policy. Perry also spoke about some Palestinian leaders such as Abu Mazen. He explained that Abu Mazen refuses to play the violence card, and that he is a strong advocate for justice and peace through the ICC and the UN. “However, the Palestinians are in a very weak position and they have to rely on allies that they do not have in order to deal with this.” Perry argued that the Trump administration does not care about Palestinians, and he observed that the peace process is being decided by Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman. Like Elgindy, Karam, and Goldenberg, Mark Perry concluded that Trump’s declaration was decided solely because of domestic politics.