I’m a bit late, but finally: Jerusalem. The bottom line is that Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is vintage Trump — a bold negotiating move by a guy who is willing to take risks to actually get things done. And that is precisely what the DC establishment and the “international community” don’t understand about him. It’s not the way they think. Trump comes from a universe where stuff gets built, payrolls must be met, and those in charge are measured by results, not rhetoric. Traditional pols are measured by one thing: Do they keep their seats or not? And quite often risky action or tough votes are avoided at all costs because they jeopardize job number one. Trump has taken the risks and put himself on the line by stating that he wants to try to achieve a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. He’s asking to be judged on results. He looked at the last several decades of failure and decided to use the definition of insanity — you know, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result — as a guide.
Will the recognition work? That depends on what your goals are and your definition of “work.” And for an answer to that, let’s rewind the tape a bit. The Israeli/Palestinian “peace process” has been going on for decades, and the parties are no closer to a deal now than they were in the beginning. There have been close calls along the way, but those deals all fell apart at the last minute. But if you really dig into the “why,” you get a better understanding of the way Trump thinks. Jerusalem has always been the capital of Israel, so a mere statement of recognition should not have been controversial. Even Congress set specific policy legislation years ago directing our government to acknowledge this fact. But in classic responsibility-avoidance mode, it included a provision that the president could waive the recognition every six months, which every president up to Trump has done.
The relevant players created enough smoke that recognition could have disastrous effects, which the U.S. was loath to be held responsible for, and so we punted. Ironically, it was in everyone’s best interest — except, of course, the ones the world claimed to care about, namely the Palestinian people — to keep the issue alive. Just like tough domestic policies like immigration and gun violence, the parties preferred to haggle over the issue rather than find a solution. The Middle East governments had a convenient dart board to deflect scrutiny of their own failed domestic policies. The Palestinian leaders kept the “foreign aid” flowing and ducked the responsibility for governing while fattening their Swiss bank accounts. No wonder folks like Arafat became billionaires while the Palestinian economy couldn’t get off the ground. The international community was able to play to their bases with a steady dose of Israel-bashing. And the diplomatic corps had the closest thing to a perpetual full employment act that you can imagine. Quarterly trips with thousand-party delegations to major cities with five star hotel stays, gourmet dinners and soaring rhetoric served its purpose — keep talking and solve nothing, lest the gravy train stop.
But times may have changed, and Trump has the negotiator’s instinct to act on it. Note that he went out of his way to say that he was merely making a glorified statement of the obvious and was still committed to getting a peace deal with all final elements to be negotiated among the parties. But he also knew he was stirring the pot to see if there is a new way. The real message was a subtle one — yes, the U.S. still wants a deal, but the unrealistic expectations that the Palestinian leaders have fed their people for decades, and others have used to keep the discussions going with no solutions, are over. It was fascinating to see the reactions. The hypocritical U.S. establishment that had voted to recognize Jerusalem years ago and never changed was suddenly appalled that a president would call their bluff. The diplomatic folks were apoplectic that their game might be up. The international community was predictably outraged and dismissive of the guy who just didn’t understand how much skill it takes for true sophisticated international talks to be conducted without accomplishing anything. And the Palestinian leaders were scared witless at the prospect of perhaps having to put up or shut up.
However, there were Middle East leaders who said that the negotiating goals might have to shift away from even a two-state solution with Palestinian control of Jerusalem to a one-state endgame where optimizing the rights of the Palestinians under Israeli rule might be all they could get. The outcry from neighboring countries was perfunctorily negative, but muted. It may be that they have bigger fish to fry with Iran looming and don’t want to rock the U.S.-Israeli boat. And the plight of the Palestinians, which provided such great domestic cover years ago, no longer has as much impact. Ditto for the activist groups. Hezbollah is trying its best to stir outrage, but the riots haven’t materialized, and even the protests are burning themselves out. It may be that a generation of Palestinians that was fed a bill of goods about what they could achieve is fading, and the new wave is more concerned about jobs and paying off car loans that can only come with a deal that provides opportunity, not flights of fancy from their leaders. Israel did its part too. True, it praised Trump to the hilt and implied he had his thumb on the scale, but it also echoed his desire for a settlement that could bring lasting peace and opportunity to all in the region. Even in contested Jerusalem, the Israelis have seen to it that everyone can worship freely wherever they want, and that would continue.
Will this work? The results guy wants a real deal, with peace, stability and opportunity, so judge him on that, not on how long the discussions can be strung out. There have been so many missteps in the past that there is zero guarantee the parties won’t screw this up too. But Trump has sent a clear message that if everyone is prepared to be realistic, he will be front and center in the negotiations. His recognition was simply a way to possibly break a logjam, not unlike tossing out an unexpected bargaining chip in a real estate negotiation that had stalled. Take him at his word that he still wants a deal and can play an honest broker. He just wanted to get the unrealistic expectations off the table. Trump’s instinct is that the various players, particularly the neighboring governments that had supported the status quo previously, are ready for a new set of negotiating parameters. If parties want results, not rhetoric, repeating the past is a non-starter. At least Trump has gotten their attention and has a shot at changing the dynamics. He can’t do worse. His move might even help.