President Trump created a predictable stir with his statement noting that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. I sould suggest that some people reacted without reading what Trump did and did not say. When I was involved in negotiations with the Israelis, starting with Menachem Begin and then Yitzhak Shamir, every comma had a meaning. Israeli negotiators did not mindlessly throw in a comma without a clear understanding of its legal impact.

In that context, you might want to be careful about taking the thrust of the President’s statement as having given away the store on Jerusalem, something that Bibi is not likely to do.  Trump, or more likely his ghost writers, created a balance with the following: “This decision is not intended, in any way, to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement.  We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians.  We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.” I am quite sure the Israelis understand what Trump has, and has not said.

128 countries voted in favor of the UN resolution rejecting President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, 9 voted against, and 35 abstained.  Some may not understand the issues involved, some frankly do not care, and others took their position by following the crowd.  But despite the lopsided vote and Trump’s statement, the problem of Jerusalem has not changed. Trumps position has been that he is not going to second guess the parties and it does appear that he, atypically, is sticking with that position. 

Trump did not answer the question of whether or not Jerusalem should be divided in a final agreement. He did not deny an ultimate Palestinian national presence in Jerusalem although the Israeli Knesset under Netanyahu’s guidance appears to be intent on foreclosing that option in a final agreement. Trump did take a position on access by the three major religions. “Jerusalem is today, and must remain, a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall, where Christians walk the Stations of the Cross, and where Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque.” If people have a problem with that statement then they are not living in the real world.

Some criticized the President for undermining the US position as “the” neutral mediator of the peace process. That is simply hogwash. Arguably, Norway made a better negotiator if measured in terms of results. But even then, I sat in the front office of the Middle East Bureau in Washington and listened as Dennis Ross coached all sides on the secure telephone, including the Norwegians as they generated the Oslo accords. Without the US, Oslo would not have succeeded. Read Dennis’ book. 

Now more than ever, it is only the US that can provide the necessary reassurance that can give the Israeli body politic sufficient comfort to make a reasonable peace that the Palestinians could live with. But, so long as some Palestinians and some Arabs reject the existence of Israel, and so long as terror is considered an acceptable tactic, and so long as the Palestinians want to go back to 1948 and exclude Israel from Jerusalem, then no Israeli will sign Israel’s death warrant by agreeing to put Palestinians in the drivers seat, whether it is in Jerusalem, in the Jordan valley, or in the commanding heights of the occupied territories.

To those who argue that we have revoked our credentials as an impartial mediator, I would respond that in all the negotiations in which I have engaged over the years, the US was never impartial. The Palestinians know this We have always had Israel’s back and politically we will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. There are a lot of reasons for this, some historic, some political, some personal, and some emotional, and I don’t see that situation changing.

Our negotiating style has always been to probe for the Israeli bottom line and then try to sell it to the Palestinians - almost never the other way around. And I defy any of those 198 countries to stand up and say that they can convince, persuade, or pressure Israel into making the kinds of concessions that will be necessary for peace. Like it or not, we are the irreplaceable ingredient.  

Ned Walker