The Memo

The Memo: Trump rolls the dice on Jerusalem

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President Trump will roll the dice in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians on Wednesday, breaking with historical precedent by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Although the move has long been sought by the most fervent backers of Israel, a storm of protest is already brewing in the Arab world.

{mosads}King Abdullah II of Jordan has said such an action will “have serious implications for security and stability in the Middle East.”

The head of the Arab League and the government of Turkey have also criticized the idea.

In a sign of increased tension, the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem on Tuesday issued a warning that “United States citizens should avoid areas where crowds have gathered and where there is increased police and/or military presence.”

Hamas has called for a “day of rage” on Friday over the decision. The Islamic group has controlled the Gaza Strip since winning Palestinian elections in 2006 but is considered a terrorist organization by the United States.

Two senior administration officials left no doubt that the White House would press on with its plan when they briefed the media late Tuesday afternoon, though they played down the significance of the move in terms of the broader conflict. 

“As we have said, this announcement does not change U.S. policy over the specific borders, dimensions, any of that,” one official said. “That will be subject to final status negotiations.”

The officials also said that Trump would order the State Department to begin the process of moving the U.S. embassy from its current location in Tel Aviv, though they cautioned that it could be three or four years before the relocation is complete.

Still, giving recognition to Jerusalem will represent a major departure from the position of previous administrations, which have viewed the final status of the city as a question to be determined in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The ultimate fate of east Jerusalem, seized by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967, is particularly contentious, as Palestinians have long considered it to be the likely capital of a future independent state.

Foreign policy experts on the left fear that the Trump administration may be playing with fire.

“Recognizing either party’s singular control of the city will only make finding a solution more difficult, it will only alienate people,” said Hady Amr, who was deputy special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under the Obama administration and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Amr added, “It will not strengthen Israel’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Arab world, it will not strengthen it in the eyes of the Palestinians or in the eyes of the Europeans. And I can see no conceivable benefit to U.S. national security or U.S. foreign policy.”

But other, more conservative foreign policy voices defended the move.

Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute suggested that the importance of the move was being overstated, especially by those who oppose it.

More broadly, Pletka argued, previous failed efforts to establish a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians mean that a fresh approach is in order.

“Insofar as the Trump administration had been willing to throw the niceties of Arab-Israeli peace by the wayside and start from scratch, I think it actually gives more of a chance for a resolution rather than less,” Pletka said. “Everybody always wants to tread that path that was trodden [before] and say ‘but when I tread it, it will be different.’ ”

At the regular White House media briefing on Tuesday, the president’s spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, pushed back against suggestions that international reaction to the move was “overwhelmingly negative,” as one reporter put it.

“No,” Sanders said, “Again, [Trump] spoke with five leaders. That’s hardly indicative of everybody across the globe.”

But other experts were adamant that the move could do real damage to U.S. standing, especially when there is deep skepticism in many quarters already about the capacity of Washington to act as an honest broker in the search for peace.

“It is going to roil American relations with the rest of the world,” said Rashid Khalidi, a professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University. “Clearly, for the rest of the world, the idea of the United States unilaterally deciding the status of Jerusalem is completely unacceptable. It puts the United States in the position of an outlaw in the eyes of international law and in the eyes of the United Nations.”

There were conspicuously few voices to be heard offering truly enthusiastic support for the move.

Pletka said that it was “purely symbolic” and would do no real harm.

James Phillips of the conservative Heritage Foundation argued that it was “an understandable but potentially risky move.”

“Peace negotiations weren’t exactly sailing along anyways, so I don’t think it is going to block any likely settlement talks. It could disrupt them in the short run, though it could be a beneficial step if it leads the Palestinians to realize they need to be become much more realistic about what they can expect from a peace agreement.”

Not so, Hady Amr, the Obama-era deputy special envoy, insisted.

“This is an own goal,” he said. “Israel and the U.S. are both going to emerge the losers because it will be more difficult to achieve peace, to achieve stability.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Jordan Fabian contributed.

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