Unrest is spreading across the Middle East. Anti-American protests have erupted in Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, Turkey, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and beyond. The State Department has issued a worldwide warning for U.S. citizens. And it’s all because U.S. President Donald Trump said he intends to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Trump has really stepped in it this time, pundits warn. But has he?
On the one hand, Trump has waded into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where even the most minor pronouncements can provoke a crisis. And let’s not forget that Jerusalem, which holds great importance to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, is one of the most emotional issues in this seemingly intractable conflict. But the protestors—not to mention the hordes of angry partisans and pundits—have it wrong here.
What they don’t seem to grasp is that Trump’s announcement is, at its core, a bureaucratic one. He will move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in recognition of the indisputable fact that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. Jerusalem is home to the prime minister’s office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Knesset (legislature), and the Supreme Court, to name a few. So it makes sense that Jerusalem is where the majority of America’s diplomatic activity in Israel will take place once the move is made.
What’s more, the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was not really Trump’s to make. It’s already enshrined in a 1995 law that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Successive presidents have issued waivers to postpone the embassy move. But that does not negate the official American view of the city and its relationship to the Jewish state.
The Palestinians and Arab and Muslim states are certainly entitled to be unhappy that Trump has dusted off the law and implemented it. But let’s be clear about what they are doing: Opposing a move that benefits Israel and not advocating for a move that would promote their interests in any way. Indeed, they are viewing this as a zero-sum conflict, and that is sadly reflective of the Palestinian position since this conflict erupted more than a century ago.
Despite a cacophony of claims to the contrary, Trump’s decision does not undermine Palestinian, Arab, or Muslim claims on the city. The move does not preclude the Palestinians from establishing their capital in the city in the future. Nor does it alter the United States’ longstanding view that the future status of the city is an issue that must be negotiated between the Palestinians and Israelis in bilateral negotiations. Trump stressed this in his speech. And he stressed that he is eager to lead those negotiations. Yet this has gone largely unnoticed in the breathless subsequent press coverage.
What’s needed now, as always, is for cooler heads to prevail in the Middle East. If we can get through the next few days of protests without a major outbreak in violence in Jerusalem or the West Bank, and if the Gaza-based terrorist group Hamas holds off on its threats of a third intifada, perhaps the Palestinians and their champions will realize that little has changed.
The embassy won’t move for at least three years, according to U.S. officials. The United States position on the status of Jerusalem as a negotiating issue has not altered. The White House is still determined to jumpstart peace talks, and it continues to call for all of the parties in the Middle East to get back to the negotiating table.
Of course, extremists don’t often let facts get in the way of their opinions. So, we hold our collective breath.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the United States Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.