As Benjamin Netanyahu looks set to begin his fifth term as prime minister of Israel — after working with an openly racist party and promising an unprecedented seizure of land claimed by the Palestinians — the hallmark achievement of his political alliance with President Donald Trump seems more secure than ever.
Democratic leaders and national security veterans of all stripes slammed Trump’s December 2017 decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there. Trump’s Democratic and Republican predecessors had all worried that recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital before a final Israeli-Palestinian deal would hinder peace negotiations. But now that the 2020 race for U.S. president is underway, the party’s candidates are silent on the question of Jerusalem — and the Democratic foreign policy establishment is skeptical that reversing Trump’s decision is a fight the next Democratic president will want to pick.
Twenty-two Democratic presidential hopefuls failed to answer a HuffPost inquiry asking whether they would change course on Jerusalem. That included Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who criticized the president’s move at the time.
The lone Democrat to comment was author Marianne Williamson, who in a Tuesday night email called Trump’s action “unnecessarily aggressive,” but said moving the embassy back risks “unnecessary and unhelpful drama.”
Experts in contact with other Democratic campaigns seem to agree — and they aren’t saying what Palestinians, or voters keen to see Trump’s controversial policies unraveled, might hope to hear.
“I don’t think you can reverse the embassy,” said Ilan Goldenberg, of the Center for a New American Security, who worked on Israel-Palestinian issues at the State Department under President Barack Obama.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of the left-leaning pro-Israel group J Street, told HuffPost that Trump’s decision is “very, very hard to undo.”
I don’t think you can reverse the embassy. Ilan Goldenberg, Center for a New American Security
And Ned Price, an Obama White House aide now helping run an influential group of foreign policy hands called National Security Action, said, ”Trump’s move, however detrimental it was to the long-term goal of a durable two-state solution, would be difficult to undo.”
Trump said nothing about Palestinians’ claims to a capital of their own in Jerusalem, and he’s since shut down the consulate general that traditionally served as a de facto U.S. embassy to them. Now that the deed is done, Democratic foreign policy commentators are focusing on other options a new president could use to show the Palestinians the U.S. is interested in their concerns and serious about being a mediator in the conflict.
“It’s not a bell you can easily unring,” Price said. “But there are specific policy moves the next president could take to restore the idea of America as an honest broker on the side of an enduring peace. And there’s a consensus coalescing around those.”
Price and other Democratic foreign policy hands are talking about an early public statement saying the U.S. still believes it would be best to have two states — Israel and Palestine — existing side by side and each maintaining a capital in Jerusalem. The Palestinians “need something on Jerusalem,” Goldenberg said. Beyond that, they envision other measures to signal a break from Trump’s years of political gifts to Israel, like reopening the Palestinian mission in Washington and pressuring Netanyahu over the growth of Jewish settlements in the largely Palestinian West Bank.
Withdrawing Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem could be politically damaging to a future Democratic president. Support for Israel remains bipartisan despite Democratic voters’ diminished sympathy for the country, and leaders in Congress and the political donor class are especially committed to the relationship. A new president might not want to seem like he or she is abandoning what Trump pitched as an act of bravery.
But some kind of action on Jerusalem will be essential for Democrats if they want to make good on promises of a more humane and deliberate Middle East policy and less alienation from America’s allies, almost none of whom have followed the president’s lead on Jerusalem. The message of second-class status that Trump’s decision sent to Palestinians, and to the 1.6 billion Muslims who see Jerusalem as holy, was loud: “In the hierarchy of claims to the holy city, one side’s is indisputable and sacred. The other’s is negotiable and worldly,” wrote Robert Malley and Aaron David Miller, two high-ranking former U.S. officials, in The Atlantic last fall.
Trump’s successors will have to say something that resonates just as much to even begin compensating for the president’s historic shift in the American approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Even if Israel were to withdraw from 99% of the West Bank and only East Jerusalem was left and Palestinians could not be sovereign there, that still wouldn’t work,” said Khalid Elgindy, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution who previously advised the Palestinian leadership. “That is consistently where negotiations have fallen apart. Everything hinges on Jerusalem. If you want to commit to a two-state solution, you have to begin with Jerusalem.”
From a presidential statement endorsing the idea of two states and two capitals to Ben-Ami’s idea of pushing a United Nations resolution with a similar message that tries to tie both Israel and Palestinians to fresh, internationally backed negotiations, Democrats are trying to respond to that need.
But their ideas still treat Trump’s action as a done deal. As the party talks about all it will change if it takes the White House, such as Trump’s immigration crackdown, his environmental deregulation and the Muslim travel ban, it’s clear some of the president’s most extreme measures will stay intact.
“President Trump did what no American president before him had the courage to do,” Vice President Mike Pence said of the Jerusalem decision at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in March. He scored cheers — and he, his boss and other Republicans will probably be using that applause line for a long, long time.