President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on Wednesday sent a powerful wave of validation through the Israeli Right, but there is also a scenario in which it blows up in the Right’s face. That scenario does not, however, involve Palestinian violence. To the contrary, bloodshed will only play into the hands of hardliners. After all, Israel is better positioned today than ever before to forcefully and effectively respond to violence. Its army is ascendant in the region, its enemies are weak and fragmented, and the world is increasingly desensitized to images of Arab uprising.
Yet, for all of Israel’s advantages in the military arena, in the field of diplomacy, it has essentially clung to a single, desperate defense to convince the major powers of the West to refrain from recognizing a Palestinian state. Such recognition — Israel has always argued — must be granted only as part of a final negotiated accord. In the wake of the President’s grant of recognition to Israel — up front and with no strings attached — it is impossible to imagine that argument retaining any force. Moreover, given the President’s open defiance of decades of global diplomatic consensus, it is likely that many previously neutral parties in Europe and around the world will, for the first time, be motivated to actively embrace a bid for Palestinian recognition.
As it stands, the leaders of these countries need not even bother writing their own recognition announcements; Mr. Trump’s speech serves as its own best rejoinder. Simply swap out the proper names referenced by the President and anyone can “acknowledge the obvious [fact] that Jerusalem is Palestine’s capital” without “taking a position on any final status issues including the specific boundaries of the Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders.” Of course, so long as the U.S. position remains unchanged, none of this may perturb the Israeli Right. Indeed, the Right may assume that, outside of the U.S., the world is already aligned against it.
Despite present appearances, however, the Right’s nightmare scenario in which the U.S. recognizes Palestine — up front and with no strings attached — may be closer than meets the eye. Certainly, a change of administration could bring it about, but, strange as it may seem, Wednesday’s announcement also paves the way for flipping the President on Palestine. The trick is to appeal to the President’s ego, which, in this context means recognizing the ways the President’s announcement, despite its many flaws, got things right, and, by extension, the ways the global elite got things wrong.
First, the President is right that it is not necessary to delay recognition of basic realities on the ground, and that it is a basic reality that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. Kudos, Mr. President, but stick to your guns. If you’re in the business of calling a spade a spade, go on to recognize the de facto Palestinian state and its capital (also Jerusalem).
Second, the international critique that recognition serves as a threat to peace is wrong. Recognition is, and always has been a shiny distraction to the real work of peace (and who better than the President to instruct us about shiny distractions). When it is functioning properly, the peace process serves not to recognize the reality of two states, but to resolve where those states begin and end, and to determine how they can co-exist. (This is true even with respect to the so-called “one state solution,” which really amounts to an agreement by Palestinians to give up their own state.) Indeed, it is not overstating matters to say that a peace process is impossible unless two states are presumed from the outset. Thus, far from threatening the peace process, prior recognition of the most basic Israeli and Palestinian realities may help hone and focus it on the true controversies at hand.
Of course, none of this is to suggest that the President’s announcement — even if it is able to precipitate a breakthrough in negotiations — was sensible or far-sighted. To state the obvious, it was not. But who in the peace camp expected visionary leadership in the Middle East from this administration? In the context of this mess of a presidency, a salvageable mess may be as good as it gets.