Two months ago President Trump said, “I want to give [the peace process] a shot before I even think about moving the embassy to Jerusalem.” Last week, without explaining why, the president reversed himself. His decision was premature and unwise, given the circumstances in the Middle East today. The announcement adversely affects longstanding US policy and interests. Every recent president, including Trump in his statement, has favored direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians as the only feasible route to an agreement to end their longstanding conflict. That has already proved to be difficult; the president made it more difficult, as the worldwide adverse reactions of Arab and Muslim leaders and our other allies make clear.
Jerusalem is and always will be the capital of Israel. That is not in doubt. The real and more difficult question is what the boundaries of Jerusalem will be and whether, through negotiations, there can emerge an independent, sovereign state of Palestine with a capital in the eastern part of Jerusalem. Fortunately, the president did not exclude that outcome. Indeed, to the contrary, he said that the United States is not taking a position on any final-status issues, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or on its borders. He also called on the parties to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites.
Nonetheless, the president’s statement will hearten those Israelis and Palestinians who oppose a two-state solution and will be used by them to advance their political agendas. In Israel, a growing and confident right, which includes several ministers in the government, is adamantly opposed to there ever being a Palestinian state on the West Bank or a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. They will be emboldened by Trump’s statement. On the Palestinian side, President Mahmoud Abbas’s approach will be further weakened. For decades he has opposed violence against Israel, favoring instead diplomacy and security cooperation as a means to achieving Palestinian independence. Israel’s security officials routinely laud his efforts in that regard. Already weakened by the lack of progress toward a Palestinian state, he will be undermined by Trump’s statement. His opponents, including Hamas, deride diplomacy, oppose cooperating with Israel, and insist on retaining the use of force to achieve political gains. They, too, will be emboldened.
Although it has not yet been achieved, there is no feasible alternative to two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace. The Israeli and Palestinian publics still largely support that outcome, and virtually all security officials on both sides agree that the alternatives to two states are less secure and less stable. There is no feasible way to get an agreement other than through direct negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Trump’s statement did not help to achieve those goals, but since he did not explicitly exclude a possible Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, he at least left open the possibility of progress.
The United States has a clear and compelling national interest in remaining involved in the Middle East and in doing all we can to reduce violence and upheaval and to combat radical Islamic extremism. We remain heavily engaged in the region, working to protect the American people from acts of terrorism; to ensure Israel’s security; to resist Iran’s drive for regional hegemony; to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria; to help other Arab countries, as well as Iraq, resist terrorism and achieve stability; and to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan and to stabilize that country, among other objectives. Inevitably there will be many more years of disruption, and no single policy or action can solve all of the region’s problems. But a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a significant step that might enable some of these countries, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, to cooperate in opposing their common foes: Iran and terrorist organizations, those supported by, and those opposed to, Iran.
We believe there is no such thing as a conflict that cannot be ended. Conflicts are created and conducted by human beings; they can be ended by human beings. We recognize the daunting difficulties that lie ahead. We acknowledge the long litany of failed past efforts. We are especially mindful of the many other conflicts and complexities in the region that work against an early resolution. Yet we firmly and realistically believe there is a path to peace through a two-state solution and that all of us who care about the region and its people, in particular the Israelis and Palestinians, must do whatever we can to advocate and work for an end to the conflict.George J. Mitchell served as the US Senate majority leader and as US envoy for Middle East peace. Alon Sachar served as an adviser to the US ambassador to Israel and to the US envoy for Middle East peace.