Middle East and North Africa

The White House's Ambiguous Jerusalem Policy

By Scott R. Anderson
Wednesday, December 20, 2017, 10:00 AM

Last week, I wrote for Lawfare's feed at Foreign Policy about the ambiguity in the president's Dec. 6 announcement that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The piece begins:

Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, reversing nearly 70 years of bipartisan U.S. foreign policy. This move places the United States on the opposite side of the issue from almost all of the international community, much of which has criticized his decision. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Trump’s decision as historic, key Arab allies have expressed fear as to what it might mean for regional stability. With widespread protests underway across the Middle East and Islamic world, U.S. embassies and consulates have warned U.S. travelers away and announced their intent to limit or close operations. Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, have cast serious doubts on their ability to continue supporting either the U.S.-led peace process or a two-state solution, putting at risk two of the very policies that Trump arguedwould be advanced by his decision.

Even more striking than this response, however, is the utter ambiguity of the statement that preceded it. While Trump spoke of breaking from the “failed strategies of the past” and “delivering” where prior presidents “lacked courage,” his speech and the official proclamationthat he signed are littered with caveats and omissions that obfuscate the policy change he is implementing. No doubt, this ambiguity is intended to serve as a hedge, one that provides a point of continuity with prior U.S. policy — which had refused to recognize any state as having sovereignty over Jerusalem, let alone Jerusalem as its capital — and allows the administration to avoid taking an affirmative position on some of the more controversial implications of the president’s decision. Yet in the heated context surrounding Jerusalem, such equivocation comes with its own risks.