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Former U.S. Ambassador To Israel On Trump's Jerusalem Change

Dec 6, 2017
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In a speech later today, President Trump has an opportunity to follow through on a campaign promise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.

(CHEERING)

GREENE: That was then-candidate Donald Trump speaking to AIPAC, the pro-Israel American lobbying group. Now, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would overturn decades of precedent. World leaders from Pope Francis to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are warning against doing this. So what could all this mean for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? I want to turn to Daniel Kurtzer. He served as U.S. ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush. He is now a professor at Princeton. Ambassador, welcome.

DANIEL KURTZER: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Why is this announcement such a big deal?

KURTZER: Well, it's inexplicable from the perspective of our diplomacy and our foreign policy, and it's self-defeating with respect to the president's stated desire to achieve some progress in the Middle East peace process. The reason we have not moved the embassy in the past or made declarations on Jerusalem is because we have been acting as an honest broker, a mediator, third-party intermediary, and it is such a sensitive issue - the status of Jerusalem, the question of whether there will be two capitals in Jerusalem in the context of a two-state solution. And so every administration until now has wrestled with this issue but come to the conclusion that it would be best for U.S. diplomacy and for the process of peacemaking not to do this. The president is...

GREENE: Well, you say...

KURTZER: Go ahead.

GREENE: If I may, you say inexplicable, but several U.S. presidents, including George W. Bush, who you worked for, called at some point for a similar move. So there's got to be a valid argument, at least, to make here.

KURTZER: Well, there is a valid argument. Jerusalem is Israel's capital, and that's where they have all their institutions of state. But the status of Jerusalem is not been determined, nor has its borders been determined. And therefore, each president, as a candidate, has called for the United States to recognize Jerusalem and move the embassy, but once behind the desk in the Oval Office, has made the decision that this would cut across our role of trying to deal with this very sensitive issue.

GREENE: You say it's a sensitive issue and also, you know, as many have argued, that the peace process could be really at risk here with this announcement. But hasn't the peace process been stalled for some time now?

KURTZER: Oh, sure. It's moribund, and the president inherited a peace process that wasn't going anywhere. What was really quite interesting on day one of his - after the election, when he tells The Wall Street Journal that he wants to make the ultimate deal - and so he himself has raised the stakes by appointing his son-in-law to run the team that's supposed to make progress - all the trips that Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have been making and the contacts that they have had.

In other words, the president himself has raised expectations that the United States was going to guide this peace process forward, meaning raising expectations that we were going to act as we have sometimes in the past, as a serious, honest broker. What he's likely to do today in this announcement is to take us out of the game.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you - let me push you on that a bit because Daniel Shapiro, a U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Obama, wrote about all this in The Wall Street Journal a couple months ago, basically saying that the president could grab this opportunity and press for moving the embassy to West Jerusalem. And then he writes, Trump could also make clear that parts of East Jerusalem are expected to be part of a future Palestinian state to be negotiated. So could this be basically triggering and getting the peace process back started again, moving some - you know, some energy behind it?

KURTZER: David, if the announcement today is nuanced, then, in fact, it could be creative diplomacy. And what I mean by that - and it's picking up a little bit on what Dan Shapiro said - but I think you need to go beyond that. If the president says that the - Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and we will consider East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state, we're ready to put our embassy in West Jerusalem vis-a-vis Israel, and we would be ready to put our embassy in East Jerusalem vis-a-vis the Palestinians, then you're talking about creative diplomacy that addresses the sensitivities on both sides. That's not likely, however.

GREENE: OK, Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel - he is now a professor at Princeton University - speaking to us about what we expect to hear from President Trump later today. Ambassador, thanks very much.

KURTZER: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.