Such a Bad Deal: Trump and Jerusalem

AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean, File

Palestinians pray in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem’s Old City

Donald Trump did accomplish one thing in his speech recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital: He put to rest the strange idea that real-estate tycoons were the best-qualified people to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Since the rise of the Trump regime in January, I’ve detected strange spasms of optimism on this point among experts and journalists covering the conflict. Maybe, just maybe Trump would be the president to broker a peace agreement.

One reason for these fits of hope was a standard phenomenon in judging Trump: He exceeded very low expectations. In his first week in office, he did not move the U.S. Embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Rather than give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu absolute carte blanche to build madly in West Bank settlements, Trump gently chided Netanyahu on the subject, sort of.

Although he had depended politically on donors like Sheldon Adelson and a base heavy on white evangelicals—supporters of intransigent Israeli policies—Trump repeated his dedication to reaching the “the ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. True, his personal envoy, Jason Greenblatt, lacked diplomatic experience—but Greenblatt soon earned good press for his willingness to listen to all sides.

And besides all that, Trump kept talking about his expertise at making deals, and he put his son-in-law and close adviser Jared Kushner, also a real estate dealmaker, in charge of the Middle East process, and Greenblatt was the lawyer who worked on their real-estate business.

The repetition of this point created the hypnotic effect that advertisers strive for. But it never made any more sense than the parallel claim that running a business qualified someone to run a government—a claim that Trump has daily disproved since January 20.

Despite certain common vocabulary—discuss, negotiate, agree—the real estate business doesn’t have much in common with international diplomacy, certainly not with peace efforts.

If you own a building in New York and want to sell it, there’s potentially more than one buyer. If you can’t reach a deal with one buyer, you’ll look for another. If you want to buy property and the seller sets a price you don’t like, you’ll invest in a different lot.

In contrast, Israelis and Palestinians have no other potential partners. More sides can be added, but the two core parties have to reach agreement or the conflict continues.

Reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will include an element of dividing up real estate. But the two sides have never really agreed about what piece of territory is the subject of the deal. Palestinians see the negotiations as being about all of historic Palestine, of which they’ve already conceded 78 percent to Israel. Israelis see it as being about divvying up the West Bank and Gaza.

But even that’s not the toughest part. The dispute over Jerusalem isn’t about acreage. It’s about who has a history in the land, who is an indigenous people. Each side feels the other’s claim as a denial of its past. And when you negotiate about the future of Palestinian refugees, you’re also dickering about who’s responsible for their exodus in 1948.

In past rounds of Israeli-Palestinian talks brokered by the United States, the most experienced diplomats have been stymied by these issues. I’m sorry, Jared, but allegedly squeezing your tenants in your Baltimore apartment complexes isn’t the background you need for solving them.

Here we reach one more essential difference between business deals and peace talks: In a business deal, sometimes one side can exploit the other’s weaknesses to come out ahead. It can be a zero-sum game. For a Palestinian-Israeli agreement to succeed—as Israeli diplomat and researcher Tal Becker has written—the leaders on both sides have to be able to present the deal as a win to their own people, or the deal will collapse.

Trump divides the world between winners and losers. His idea of “so much winning” requires someone else to lose. He couldn’t be less suited for a peace process. 

There are, however, aspects of a business deal that do apply to peace process. One is not to give away an asset in return for nothing. Another is to have an expert read and explain the relevant laws to you before you act. In his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump ignored the first of these rules and probably the second.

As Becker wrote, one victory that an Israeli leader should have been able to achieve in a peace agreement is to “finally deliver international recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” Trump just gave away American recognition, before any agreement, with no quid pro quo. The American position as a broker just got weaker, thereby reducing the chance of reaching a deal.

As for the law: In his speech, Trump argued that he was “not taking a position [on] any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.”

But he also emphasized that he was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and ordering the eventual move of the U.S. Embassy to the city, in order to implement the Jerusalem Embassy Act. That law, irresponsibly passed by Congress in 1995, describes Jerusalem as being, “since 1967… a united city administered by Israel.” By citing the law, Trump accepted Israel’s claim to have united the city. The Israeli municipal boundaries, as set in 1967, become the new American baseline for negotiation.

Since the law is longer than 280 characters, I’d guess Trump hasn’t read it. If Greenblatt or other advisers explained the law to him, he ignored them.

Not that Trump was the least concerned about the negotiating process. He acted, by all accounts, to satisfy donors such as Adelson, and evangelical voters, and to fulfill a campaign promise not dependent on getting congressional approval.

To those political purposes, you can add a rather blatant psychological one. Of previous presidents who did not implement the Embassy Act, Trump said, “Some say they lacked courage.” That’s a standard Trump method of stating his own opinion. He sounded like a 16-year-old bully worried about proving his masculinity. Showing caution, a concern for consequences, took second place to not looking like a chicken.

In the process, Trump indeed handled the Israeli-Palestinian issue very much as he has handled real estate. A hallmark of his business record is declaring bankruptcy and leaving others to suffer the costs of his bad decisions, while he continues to live in style. His Jerusalem declaration provides, at least in his eyes, a political payoff. It bankrupts his supposed commitment to a peace agreement and leaves Israelis and Palestinians to pay the price. 

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