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On Jerusalem, Trump Gave Israel All the Carrots and Doubled Down on Sticks for the Palestinians

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Palestinians clash with Israeli troops following a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the West Bank City of Nablus, December 8, 2017.
Palestinians clash with Israeli troops following a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital in the West Bank City of Nablus, December 8, 2017.Credit: Majdi Mohammed / AP

It should be clear by now that Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is not going to spark a third intifada. It was clearly a tactical diplomatic error, for which he obviously will never take responsibility.

But making a one-sided declaration in favor of Israel was also a complete error from a conflict-management perspective.

The diplomatic fallout is dramatic but will ultimately dissipate. The European Union is up in arms, but its member states will not reduce long-term trade with Israel. Japanese and Chinese tech delegations canceled their trips to Israel, but they will be back another time when the world isn’t watching.

So what is the problem with what Trump did? Simply, it will have the exact opposite effect of what he claims to be doing – removing an obstacle to peace. But that is par for the course for a man who claims to have written “The Art of the Deal,” but never did.

The art of the diplomatic deal, particularly in ethnic conflicts, is to create a sense of balance between the two parties. Such conflicts suffer from asymmetry – the central government has more power, more diplomatic legitimacy and more economic resources. When the stronger party keeps getting stronger, it has increasingly less motivation to negotiate, let alone close, a deal. Only third parties can keep a check on that asymmetry, through a system of carrots and sticks.

In fact, in the history of diplomacy, there is not a single example of a peace agreement being reached that resulted from a potential mediator increasing the asymmetry between the parties.

And that is exactly what Trump did. There are so few sticks the international community has to use against Israel, and withholding recognition of Jerusalem as its capital, as absurd and hollow as it seems, was one of them. And now Trump has given that away.

Part of Trump’s problem on this issue, as with many issues, is that he never asks the question of why America has a certain policy. He has no interest in the wisdom of decades of diplomats and just decides he doesn’t like it and wants to try something new because nothing else has worked. While he has a point about previous models failing, he again fails to ask why they didn’t work and what the repercussions are of what he wants to do.

He didn’t ask why most of the world never had their embassies in Jerusalem. The reason is that when the UN admitted Israel to its ranks with Resolution 273, having decided that “Israel is a peace loving State which accepts the obligations contained in the Charter and is able and willing to carry out those obligations,” its official capital was Tel Aviv. When it passed Resolution 303 restating its intention that Jerusalem “be placed under a permanent international regime” in December 1949, Tel Aviv was still the capital.

Nikki Haley on CNN explaining Trump Jerusalem decisionCredit: CNN

Thus, Israel defied the UN’s will when it declared Jerusalem its capital in January 1950, and the international community has withheld recognition as a matter of principle ever since. Now the U.S. is defying all previous UN resolutions. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley says Trump made the decision because it “advances the ball” and “recognizes reality.” As someone who, like Trump, entered politics from the business world and lacks any prior diplomatic experience, she hasn’t considered that defying international will has never advanced any ball toward the goal of ending ethnic conflicts.

If Trump had thought it through, he would have known his announcement would prompt the Palestinians to cancel their meeting with Vice President Mike Pence. So it is disingenuous for him to accuse the Palestinians of walking away from dialogue when he just killed the dialogue. What is there to talk about now other than the terms of Palestinian surrender?

Ultimately, the announcement doesn’t change much. Trump would not have succeeded anyway in brokering a peace deal because neither side has an interest in one. Moreover, there is no sense that the two sides are stuck in a mutually painful stalemate, which is considered a precondition for a conflict to be ripe for resolution.

Israel is so strong that it doesn’t want to stop the settlement enterprise, which will eventually make a two-state solution impossible, if it hasn’t already. Israel’s leaders believe that maintaining the status quo, in which Israel thrives economically and expands diplomatic relations, is preferable to making any concessions at the negotiating table.

Meanwhile Palestinian leaders are too corrupt to jeopardize their rule and too focused on their grievances over the past to even consider a practical solution if it were offered.Incidentally, this isn’t the first time the United States has made such a blunder. George W. Bush gets that honor for telling Israel that America would support settlement blocs in a final peace deal, another break from the past that put another nail in the coffin.

In the end, Trump can’t be blamed for killing the peace process, but he’s certainly in violation of the Hippocratic Oath: He’s helped ensure the patient isn’t revived.

Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University’s International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. Twitter: @stevekhaaretz

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