1242 GMT April 17, 2021
The 11 ex-envoys all closely followed Trump’s announcement on Wednesday, in which he also set in motion a plan to move the American Embassy to Beit-ul Moqaddas from Tel Aviv. Even those who agreed that Trump was recognizing the reality on the ground disagreed with his approach — making a major diplomatic concession without any evident gain in return.
One of the exceptions was Ogden R. Reid, a former congressman who was the ambassador from 1959 to 1961, at the end of the Eisenhower administration. “I think it’s the right decision,” he said. “Not a lot more to say.”
The other exception was Edward S. Walker Jr., who was ambassador from 1997 to 1999, under President Bill Clinton. “I think it’s about time,” he said. “We’ve been remiss in not recognizing realities as they are. We all know Israel has a capital, it’s called Jerusalem, and over my 35 years of service in the Middle East no one ever questioned that.”
What about the departure from United States policy since 1948 — that the final status of Jerusalem is a matter for negotiation between the Israelis and Palestinians — and the condemnation from the international community?
“It’s really a question of what are the lines to be drawn around Israel and the ultimate state of Palestine,” Walker said. “Nothing in what the president has said precludes the negotiation of a settlement of this issue.”
That was not the prevailing view. More typical was the perspective of Daniel C. Kurtzer, who was the ambassador from 2001 to 2005, under President George W. Bush.
“There are many downsides, both diplomatically and in terms of the Middle East peace process, and no upside,” Kurtzer said. “We are isolated internationally once again – except for the Israel, which supports this – and we are taking ourselves out of the role the president says he wants to play as a peace broker.”
What of the argument that the peace process, with the goal of a two-state political solution, was dormant, and needed to be shaken up?
“The fact that the process is moribund calls for a much more dramatic role,” he said. “It doesn’t call for the US to lean over and adopt the position of one party and offer nothing to the other party.”
Richard H. Jones, who was ambassador from 2005 to 2009, also under Bush, warned that the Palestinian Authority would step up international efforts to boycott and condemn Israel.
“This is a risky move, which no doubt will cost lives in Israel and the region, particularly as Israeli settlers use it to justify accelerating their activity further,” he said in an email.
Several of the ambassadors were open to recognizing West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But they said that should happen as part of a broader strategy that would also require the Israelis to halt or slow settlement construction and that would recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Martin S. Indyk, who served as ambassador twice, both times during Bill Clinton’s presidency, proposed just such a deal in an Op-Ed essay in The New York Times this year, weeks before Trump was sworn in.
“Not surprisingly, President Trump didn’t follow my advice to couple his move on Jerusalem with a diplomatic initiative,” Indyk said on Thursday. “Instead, he tried to limit the damage by avoiding any geographic definition of the capital that he is officially recognizing. Unfortunately, that nuance will be lost on all sides.”
William Andreas Brown, who was the ambassador from 1988 to 1992, and returned to the United States Embassy in Israel as chief of mission early in the Clinton administration, recalled that he once wrote a memo to the first President George Bush urging that the embassy be moved to Jerusalem.
“My motivation was to incentivize Israel’s participation in the Madrid peace talks,” he said, referring to negotiations in 1991 that helped give momentum to what later became the Oslo process. He recalled that there was significant resistance to the proposal in the Bush administration, and that the idea was dropped.
“If he was going to make this announcement, it ought to be very, very carefully crafted so as to minimize a blowup,” he said, making clear he did not think Trump had succeeded.
William Caldwell Harrop, who was the ambassador from 1992 to 1993, called Trump’s decision “slightly reckless” and even “kind of a masochistic move” that might “undermine his own, repeatedly discussed ‘Great Deal’ of bringing peace to the Israelis and Palestinians.”
Having decided to make his announcement, Trump could have been explicit that he would place the embassy in West Jerusalem, Harrop said.
“One has to be pessimistic,” he said after listening to Trump’s speech. “We’ll get, before long, more efforts by Palestinians to build up international recognition of the state of Palestine. Some form of Intifada is very likely, and there will be more bloodshed.”
Edward P. Djerejian, who was the ambassador from 1993 to 1994, in the optimistic aftermath of the Oslo peace accords, also found Trump’s effort to thread the needle unsatisfying.
Trump portrayed his decision more as a recognition of on-the-ground reality than as a sharp change in policy.