The Middle East is a region that is used to diplo-speak. When U.S. officials talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they usually parse their words carefully. President Trump, though, is changing that, and it is causing confusion.
Last month, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley explained to the world that although the administration decided to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, its final status is still up for negotiation.
“The president took great care not to prejudge final-status negotiations in any way, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem,” Haley told the U.N. Security Council. “That remains a subject to be negotiated only by the parties.”
But President Trump said Tuesday via Twitter that he has “taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table.” He threatened to cut “massive future payments” of aid to Palestinians if they don’t start peace talks with the Israelis. And he tweeted that because of the Jerusalem decision, the Israelis “would have had to pay more.”
That last part confused Israeli lawmaker Avi Dichter, who told Israeli radio, “Only the devil knows what the president meant by that.”
On Tuesday, Haley warned of a possible cut to U.S. support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which helps Palestinian refugees, unless the Palestinians come back to the negotiating table. The U.S. is the largest donor to the agency.
Palestinians who are seeking East Jerusalem as their future capital are furious about what they call Trump’s attempts at “blackmail.”
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told Reuters his government is not opposed to re-entering peace talks, as long as they are on the basis of creating a Palestinian state along the border that existed before Israel captured land in the 1967 war.
“It used to be the State Department spokesman would have carefully crafted statements, but now people are saying, ‘What should I believe? Should I believe those officials or should I believe what the president says from his gut?’ ” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Makovsky, who has tracked Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts for years as a journalist and former State Department official, says the issue of Jerusalem is so emotional that the White House is going to have to clarify this.
“Both of these ideas cannot be true at the same time,” he said of the December remarks that Jerusalem’s boundaries are up for negotiation and this month’s tweet that Jerusalem is off the table. “What’s then to negotiate if you just took Jerusalem off the table?”
A U.S. official tried to play this down, arguing that the president has only taken off the table that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital — not Palestinian claims to the eastern part of the city. Separately, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration is still committed to an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
But Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution says the “carefully drafted staff verbiage cannot hold up against the assault of the president’s impulsive announcements.”
Leaders around the world have gotten used to this “bluster,” Wittes says, but they should not discount it.
“Even when mitigated or tempered by post facto staff work,” she says, “these pronouncements tend to hold up in one form or another.”