President Trump’s decision to “officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” is a high-risk statement that acknowledges “the obvious.” His intent to move the US embassy from the beachfront at Tel Aviv to Jerusalem restates that obvious without necessarily raising the risk. By granting Israel a symbolic victory on a terrain where symbols matter, Trump passes along the risk, at a time when the regional stakes are rising.
The U.S. government already owns two possible sites for its Jerusalem embassy. In 1989, then-ambassador William Brown and Moshe Gatt of the Israel Lands Authority signed a lease on a ruined British Army barracks in Talpiot. Even a president without experience of the property business would approve the lease’s terms, 99 years at $1 a year. In 2014, the US government bought another site, the Diplomat Hotel, next to the current U.S. Consulate in Arnona.
The Talpiot site is in West Jerusalem. This has been the Jewish side of town ever since Jordanian troops drove the Jews from the east side of town in Israel’s War of Independence. The Arnona site is about two hundred feet over the Green Line, the 1949 ceasefire line which partitioned Jerusalem between Israel and Jordan. So it falls in what the media now calls “Arab East Jerusalem,” even though Israel’s post-1967 construction program has created a Jewish East Jerusalem in the gaps between the Arab neighborhoods.
Palestinian groups have disputed the Israel Lands Authority’s ownership of the Talpiot site. The Arnona hotel, being over the Green Line, is on what NPR and the PLO would call “Arab land.” This presents the Trump Administration with a choice between antagonizing the Palestinian “street” and casting onto the street the equally outraged residents of the Diplomat Hotel, most of them elderly immigrants to Israel. These are not the same two streets, because the eternal capital of Jewish Jerusalem is also the Muslim city of Al-Quds. In modern times, Jews have been in the majority in Jerusalem at least since the mid-1800s, which in local terms means since yesterday afternoon.
It will take years to build the new embassy and organize accommodation for its thousand American staffers. Meanwhile, the ramifications of Trump’s announcement will be measured in weeks and months.
Domestically, the announcement is a domestic victory for President Trump. He satisfies the Republican base while their elected representatives struggle to agree on tax reform. He goes down in history as a second Harry Truman, by ensuring that historians will always link the words “Jerusalem,” “Israel,” and “Trump.” And, in one of his signature moves, he removes his thumb from the Twitter button in order to jam it in the eye of left-wing Democrats.
The announcement is also a victory for the Americans who campaigned for the Clinton-era Jerusalem Embassy Act (1995), and for the running dogs of Zionist imperialism who reminded successive U.S. presidents of that commitment at six monthly intervals.
Every victory has its price. So, who pays?
Israel’s symbolic victory is also a fact on the ground, and that is a symbolic and factual reverse for the Palestinians. This reflects the death of the Oslo Process, which was supposed to create win-win mutual interests between Israelis and Palestinians. Trump’s announcement does not, however, annul the United States’ commitment to creating a Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem. Nor does it necessarily contradict the principle of dividing the Jewish and Arab states along demographic lines.
Today, Trump repeated the American commitment to “advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agreement.” He did not define his geographical understanding of “Jerusalem.” Today’s decision, he said, does not imply an altered position on “any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem of the resolution of contested borders.” That leaves plenty of room for creating sovereign Palestinian areas under a peace deal.
Trump has said he wants to make “the deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians. The Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, and the rise of Shiite Iran as regional hegemon have reduced the Israeli-Palestinian issue to one problem in a region well on its way to cataclysm. The Saudis have more pressing problems than driving the Jews from their ancestral turf into the surf of the Mediterranean.
The United States’ is sponsoring a Saudi-led Sunni coalition against Iran. Israel, threatened by nuclear assault by the mullahs in Teheran, is lining up with the Sunni states. The Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio is an obstacle to that alignment. While Jared Kushner has been clocking up the air miles with trips to Riyadh, rumor has it that Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s reformist and aggressively anti-Iranian new leader, has pressed Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to make a peace deal with Israel. What will Benjamin Netanyahu have to offer in return, and where?
The question is not just whether Abbas would accept Netanyahu’s maximum offer, some sort of Palestinian state with some sort of capital in some part of Jerusalem. It is whether Israel, which managed to avoid getting drawn into the Syrian civil war, risks getting drawn into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
Lebanon looks like the next front of the Shiite Persian-Sunni Arab regional war. In mid-November, Mohammed bin Salman summoned Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri to Riyadh in order to fire him. Though this misfired—Hariri is still prime minister— it demonstrates that, with Syria dismembered by civil war, Saudi Arabia wants to supplant Syria’s control of Lebanese politics. The main instrument of Syrian control, and the enemy of both Saudi Arabia and Israel, is Hezbollah. Since the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006, Israel’s northern border has been relatively quiet, as both sides prepare for the next round of their “forever war.” Now, Saudi Arabia’s moves in Lebanon are tipping this balance of fear.
In 2006, Hezbollah fired some 4,000 Iranian-supplied rockets at Israeli cities in 34 days. Now, Hezbollah has as many as 150,000 rockets, some of them highly accurate, and some capable of carrying chemical weapons. If a war breaks out, the Israeli military expects an onslaught of as many as 1,000 missiles a day, and attack from a possible second front along the Syrian border. Israel will be forced to make another costly land invasion of Lebanon. That would accelerate the region’s slide into chaos.
Of course, this scenario might not play out. In which case, Netanyahu pockets the prize of Trump’s recognition of Israeli claims to Jerusalem. And in that case, Trump pockets Netanyahu. For you get nothing for nothing. If you get a free surf-n-turf dinner in Las Vegas, it is because you will pay for it at the tables.
Trump is a negotiator. He has given Netanyahu a symbolic victory, and an offer he can’t refuse. Now, Netanyahu owes him. So, for that matter, do all the advocates of transferring the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Netanyahu will be expected to do his part, to work towards the “deal of the century”—and even to wage another unwinnable war with Hezbollah.
Perhaps Netanyahu expects that the Palestinians will, as usual, blow their chances and fail to achieve their side of a peace deal. Netanyahu cannot know, however, how the dice will fall in Lebanon. A weakened Hezbollah is in the regional interests of the United States and Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel. The cost to Israel, however, will not be symbolic.
Dominic Green, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard