The Strategic Impact of Making Jerusalem the Capital of Israel

By Anthony H. Cordesman

President Trump's announcement on December 6th that, "It is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel," and that he is "directing the State Department to begin preparation to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem," will hurt both Israeli and U.S. strategic interests. Two critical problems: It damages Israel and U.S. interests by seriously irritating the Arab world, and it gives Iran, the Hezbollah, and Russia the opportunity to exploit this anger and the divisions.

There was no earthly reason to provoke the Arab world. All President Trump had to do to help Israel was to ignore his campaign rhetoric and Israel's political hardliners, and do nothing. Every year since 1967, Israel has slowly created new facts on the ground in Jerusalem and on the West Bank. Jerusalem has become steadily more Jewish, and the Jewish areas in greater Jerusalem have expanded eastward to the point where they have virtually reached the edge of the slopes down to the Jordon River Valley.

No one in the Arab world wants this to happen. There have been countless objections from the Palestinians and some clashes in Jerusalem—as well as among outside supporters of the peace process and a two-state solution. Like the Israeli settlements on the West Bank, this gradual build-up of facts on the ground has steadily reduced the real-world chances of going back to the 1967 cease fire lines, and the prospects for a viable two-state peace settlement.

At the same time, the deep divisions within the Arab world, the lack of any Palestinian unity and effective leadership, and the fears key states like Saudi Arabia have of Iran, have led Arab objections to become steadily quieter and ineffective, and they have made outside peace efforts largely moot in limiting the expansion of Israeli areas of control.

Doing nothing would have allowed this real-world expansion of facts on the ground to continue indefinitely. Greater Jerusalem would have continued to grow with minimal and largely pro forma Arab objections. The Israeli Jewish population would have continued to increase, and the Palestinian population of Jerusalem would have continued to come under pressure.

Outside objections would have remained equally ineffective, and the threat of real peace negotiations that actually affect the facts on the ground would have been negligible. Jerusalem might have lacked the formal title of capital and the "thrill" of housing more embassies, but each passing month and year would have made Jerusalem more Israeli without creating any new political opposition or rise in the threat to Israel.

Doing nothing would also have avoided giving Iran, the Hezbollah, and potentially Russia and Syria the political ammunition to use against Israel, or against America's Arab strategic partners and the U.S. It would not have pleased the hard right in Israel, or given a semi-besieged Netanyahu political aid, but Israel's extremists are as much a threat to Israel’s core strategic interests as its most dedicated Arab enemies. Demanding the wrong things too loudly and too soon has never helped Israel, only hurt it.

In short, the end result of the President's announcement on Jerusalem is to undermine the security of Israel, create major problems for our Arab allies, and undermine America's image and position in the Middle East and North Africa. It has already provoked wide opposition, and new doubts of our leadership from our European allies, and may well be used in recruiting by Islamist terrorist and extremist groups.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy