Two months after the U.S. Embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, President Donald Trump’s controversial decision still requires a balancing act. Even if the predictions of a Mideast war of apocalyptic proportions didn’t quite pan out (not yet, at least), the decision has made the administration and anyone remotely associated with it persona non-grata in the eyes of Palestinian leadership.
Such a move could have been handled in a much more responsible and even-handed manner. Trump could have specified the parameters of what he envisioned the Jewish state’s capital to be, emphasizing West Jerusalem, indisputably Israeli territory located within the Green Line. Of course, he did no such thing, and there was no mention of East Jerusalem acting as the prospective capital of a future Palestine, nor any seeming desire to quell what predictably resulted in global outrage.
Nonetheless, the United States, can, at the very least, attempt to move things back in the right direction: the opening of an embassy and declaration of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital must be met with some sort of reciprocal move, however symbolic, in favor of the Palestinians in order to assure them that a viable capital located in East Jerusalem is still very much on the table. Although the United States cannot and will not recognize a Palestinian state outright before the end of negotiations (if they are ever to start up again), the establishment of an American presence in the eastern part of the city in the form of a consulate (or even a commitment to place an embassy to the Palestinians in East Jerusalem under a future peace agreement) would make the idea of a Palestinian capital that much more concrete, sending a message to Palestinian leadership as a means of nudging it back to negotiations and attempting to restore a working relationship. In terms of an actual location within East Jerusalem, there are many options, but steering clear of the Old City and its environs would let both parties know that its contentious status must be settled exclusively through negotiations. In addition, using the neighborhood of Abu Dis as a springboard for American recognition might also be problematic, as it features in any number of rumored peace deals that would allegedly force the PLO’s hand and forfeit the remainder of the city for their capital.
The creation of an American consulate in East Jerusalem should also be understood in the same spirit as the wave of recognition (or, at least, debated recognition) of a Palestinian state by a number of European countries in 2017, various initiatives differentiating between Israel and the territories including the Horizons 2020 Agreement and ENI CBB Med Agreement signed between Israel and the European Union in 2013 and 2017 respectively, and most recently a vote by the Irish Senate to blacklist settlement goods. Regardless of how one views the legitimacy of the above actions (particularly the Irish legislation), all have been taken with partition in mind as the end goal of negotiations, and to send a clear message to the Israeli government that no amount of settlement expansion will legitimize Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank outside the confines of a peace accord. Such action might be doubly important in the face of Israel’s recent Nation-State Law, which declares Jerusalem its undivided capital; even a symbolic American presence in the city would likely send a strong message to annexationist-minded politicians in the Knesset to scale back their expectations.
An American consulate beyond the Green Line may also, like its counterpart in West Jerusalem, spur a desire by U.S. allies to establish their own presence in the city, whether as consulates or simply lower-level forms of representation to the PLO (in this case, following the U.S.’s lead in order to curry favor with the administration might not be such a bad thing). In taking these actions, the administration will help to both normalize, and more importantly stabilize the consensus of East Jerusalem as a future Palestinian capital in the eyes of many of its global partners, helping perhaps to mend fraying ties on at least one issue during this tense period of global instability. By distinguishing between the city’s two halves, these actions could also have the added benefit of conferring greater legitimacy to Israel’s claims to West Jerusalem, allaying any Israeli fears that this area is up for negotiation.
The current Israeli government coalition makes it all but impossible to move forward on contested issues like Jerusalem outside of adhere a zero-sum view that leaves the entirety of the city (save perhaps for a few neighborhoods on its fringes) within the future borders of Israel. The establishment of an American consulate in East Jerusalem will not force the Israeli government’s hand, but it may, at the very least, prevent the further deterioration of an already precarious status quo. The option of partitioning Jerusalem into two capitals must remain a possibility, lest the parties be stuck with far more unsavory choices going forward. A consulate is an opportunity for the Trump administration to establish its own facts on the ground, or, more likely, for a future president to right their predecessor’s blunder.