President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and direct the State Department to begin moving the U.S. embassy there has given rise to a slew of commentary. Some say his decision merely recognizes reality. Others suggest it effectively "puts paid" to the peace process. In fact, both are true. The decision was largely an act of political symbolism, but it is fraught with inadvertent real-world consequences.
On paper, Trump's statement leaves open all the important questions. It says, "We are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders." He also called "on all parties to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem's holy sites."
As a legal matter, this means that he has merely recognized an abstract concept of Jerusalem--without reference to the real-world issues regarding its boundaries, the possibility of East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital or a resolution to the separate (and complicated) problem of its holy sites. This loophole allows moderates in Israel and the United States to say, "No big deal, he's just reflecting reality." But if Trump had really just wanted to reflect the real-life situation, he could have followed the Russians, who in April 2017 recognized West Jerusalem as Israel's capital without any fanfare. Of course, that would not have been Trumpian.
In another seemingly symbolic move, Trump directed the State Department to hire architects to begin commissioning an embassy. It's true that nothing concrete is going to happen right away: The site leased in 1989 for a future embassy (at the edge of the Talpiot neighborhood) doesn't even meet today's security standards regarding how far it must be set back from the street. On the other hand, if Trump had just wanted to make a symbolic acknowledgment of reality, he could have changed the placard in front of the U.S. consulate in West Jerusalem to read "U.S. Embassy."
Although a good lawyer could therefore argue that the declaration changes little, in reality it carries tremendous practical portent. It specifically tells the 320,000 Palestinians living in Jerusalem that the United States has no interest in their increasingly dysfunctional living situation. The proclamation also sabotages the so-called " outside-in" strategy: using Arab states to negotiate a solution to the conflict and then bringing along Palestine and Israel. Many...