During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump vowed to move the U.S. Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to occupied Jerusalem. In recent weeks, advisors to the president-elect doubled down on this promise.
Past U.S. presidents have also pledged to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem. But, none have gone beyond rhetoric, as doing so would break international consensus over the city’s status and provoke a diplomatic fall-out with various countries.
In November 1947, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181. The resolution recommended the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Jerusalem, however, was designated as a “separated body” under international administration because of its religious significance. While Israel conquered West Jerusalem (1948) and illegally annexed East Jerusalem (1967), the United States has not withdrawn its support for the resolution. Today, official U.S. policy holds that the future status of the city must be determined through an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
Donald Trump appears eager to reverse course on this position. In early December, members of his transition team went to Jerusalem to scout possible locations for the embassy. On December 15, Trump also named David Friedman, a bankruptcy attorney with strong ties to the Israeli settler movement, as U.S. Ambassador to Israel. Friedman opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, and, instead, favors Israel’s annexation of the West Bank and permanent sovereignty over Jerusalem.
Several American officials have expressed their concern over these developments. They argue that Trump’s plans could kill the two-state paradigm and destroy the United States’ image as an “honest broker” for peace.
At the same time, however, Trump’s positions do not represent a drastic departure from the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s long-held approach and attitude toward Israel/Palestine. The United States has never been an impartial mediator between Israelis and Palestinians. It has, instead, consistently acted as a defender of Israel’s interests. The United States has also done little to prevent the colonization of Jerusalem and the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), and has enabled Israeli intransigence through annual aid and military assistance packages.
What is more, the U.S. brokered “peace process” was designed not to achieve Palestinian sovereignty, but rather limited autonomy in regions under Israeli control. In essence, it exists to reconfigure (and hence sustain) the Israeli settler-colonial project while soothing the consciousness of liberal Zionists.
Palestinians in the oPt have long recognized this, even if their political leaders have yet to do so explicitly. A recent survey shows that a majority of Palestinians have lost faith in the viability of the two-state idea, as well as U.S.-mediated bilateral negotiations towards that end. Most also feel the Palestinian Authority is a co-opted and unrepresentative institution.
In recent years, grassroots Palestinian movements have emerged and are gradually shifting the collective focus away from the “peace process” and strategic goal of statehood towards tactical innovations, like the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, to realize basic rights for the Palestinian people.
For this reason, Trump’s pronouncements are welcome, as they may finally bury the illusion that Palestinian liberation can be realized through the United States’s intervention. Perhaps now the Palestinians (notably their “leadership”) can turn en masse to their allies in international civil society, as well as toward BDS as a new national strategy to combat Israeli settler-colonialism.