U.S. and Israeli officials celebrated the relocation of the embassy of the United States to Jerusalem this week. That long-promised move was, to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a bold and courageous decision, proof that U.S. President Donald Trump is Israel’s best friend. Many others, including many Americans and Israelis, are not so sure. Contrary to the president’s claims, the move will make peace harder to reach and will likely embolden hardliners on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
Of all the issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians, none cuts as deep as the status of Jerusalem. Both Israelis and Palestinians claim it as their capital. Since its final disposition will be an essential component of a peace agreement, virtually every other government has located its embassy in Tel Aviv. In 1995, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution stating that “Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel,” and U.S. presidents have for many years pledged to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Once in office, however, all hesitated after recognizing the problems such a move would create.
That failure to act was like catnip to Trump, who not only pledged to move the embassy but in December officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and then, earlier this week, opened the “new U.S. Embassy.” (In reality, the existing consulate was upgraded in status.)
While Israeli and U.S. officials celebrated the move, thousands of Palestinians protested in Gaza. Israeli security forces responded with live fire as demonstrators approached the fence that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel, killing at least 60 people and wounding an estimated 2,700 others. Local hospitals are reportedly overflowing with protesters shot in the leg. The United Nations estimates that at least 112 people have been killed over the last six weeks.
The decision to use live ammunition prompted international condemnation. The U.N. Security Council convened an emergency session to discuss the situation. Most envoys spoke against the violence and the move of the embassy that precipitated it. In response, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., fended off all criticism, dismissing the claim that the embassy move was related to the violence and countered that “moving our embassy to Jerusalem also reflects the reality that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. … Recognizing this reality makes real peace more achievable, not less.”
That is hard to believe. The U.S. move was generally recognized as an invaluable concession to Israel, one that would be withheld until leverage was needed to nudge that government toward a difficult decision on a final settlement. To do it now deprives the U.S. of that influence.
Moreover, there is no evidence of any plan to advance the peace progress, despite Trump’s campaign promise to “give it a shot.” He has assigned his son-in-law Jared Kushner, his ambassador to Israel and the special representative for international negotiations, whose chief claim is that he was the former Trump Organization chief legal officer, to the task. None of them have any experience with negotiations of this complexity nor of this significance.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Palestinians believe that Washington has forfeited its position as a neutral arbiter, one that could facilitate a solution that they could accept. Their situation is growing increasingly desperate — more than two-thirds of the nearly 2 million people in Gaza are younger than 25, are descendants of refugees and face an unemployment rate of 44 percent — and protests are the only option.
The Trump administration is betting that traditional backers of the Palestinian cause are focused on other issues, Iran in particular. Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf governments are inclined toward Israel’s view that Tehran is the real regional threat. By this logic, Iran’s support for Hamas, the government in Gaza, thus delegitimizes the Palestinian cause.
While these issues may seem far from Japan, just two weeks ago Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held a summit with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. In their meeting, Abe noted that Japan would not be moving its embassy and urged Abbas to sit down with the Israelis to genuinely negotiate. Abe also highlighted the importance of the U.S. in any solution. In truth, Japan is marginal to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it has a role to play. This country has provided $1.86 billion in aid to Palestinians, will offer another $10 million and is ready to offer still more. Just as important is moral support for Palestinians: Our support for international law must not be restricted to the Asia-Pacific region. There is little chance that Japan’s position will sway the U.S. president, but that is no reason for us to back a policy that is short-sighted and dangerous.