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Ambassador Dennis Ross Offers Historical Perspective On Trump's Jerusalem Announcement


President Trump today declared Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, something he said was overdue. He called it a recognition of reality. He said the U.S. remains committed to bringing peace to the region.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This decision is not intended in any way to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement. We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians.

KELLY: We're hearing reaction to President Trump's announcement from the region, also from here in the U.S. today, including Ambassador Dennis Ross. He's advised four U.S. presidents on the Middle East, and he's here in the studio now. Welcome.

DENNIS ROSS: Nice to be with you. Thank you.

KELLY: What do you make of this move - good idea, bad idea?

ROSS: If the purpose of the idea is to create a new baseline in terms of recognizing the reality that Jerusalem or at least a part of Jerusalem is Israel's capital and will always be a capital, you can see the logic of that. The logic, I would say, would be more compelling if it had been done in the context of presenting the plan. Jared Kushner a couple of days ago...

KELLY: The president's son-in-law and now senior adviser, yeah.

ROSS: Right. He spoke about the fact that the administration was going to present a plan to deal with Israeli-Palestinian peace, and it was going to deal with the big issues, not the small issues. Obviously Jerusalem is one of the big issues. So if you're going to have a plan, wouldn't it make the most sense to embed this in that plan - because when you do that, that plan will basically also have elements in it that the Palestinians and the Arabs will actually see as a good thing so it makes it easier to absorb something like this which, from their standpoint, raises questions about whether their needs, their rights, their interests will really be recognized in terms of the negotiations that and the upcoming plan that is going to be presented.

KELLY: We elsewhere on the show today interviewed the Palestinian ambassador to the United States, Husam Zomlot. He told us that he thinks this raises real questions about the U.S. and its ability to serve as an effective mediator going forward. That doesn't seem to bode well.

ROSS: Well, it doesn't bode well. But again, I would put it in a kind of context. For the Palestinians and for the Saudis and for the Jordanians, the Egyptians, Jerusalem is a very significant emotional issue. For the Palestinians in particular, they can't envision having a state without Jerusalem, at least a part of Jerusalem being their capital. So anything that looks like this has already been decided makes it very difficult for them. And even worse than that, from their standpoint and clearly from the standpoint of the other Arabs, if it allows the Iranians or Hamas or al-Qaida or Hezbollah to say, look; these countries have acquiesced and conceded Jerusalem already, that puts them on the defensive.

So in their response to what the president has announced, they almost don't have a choice but to be very negative, particularly because they were informed of this basically a day ago. So they have to react the way they had. Had this been prepared, had the ground for this been worked out quietly with them months ago, then I think that position could be rather different.

KELLY: For people who do not follow the Middle East closely, who may never have been to Jerusalem, paint us a little bit of a picture of how the current status of Jerusalem as a contested city came to be.

ROSS: From 1948 to 1967, Israel existed. Its position was only in West Jerusalem. When Israel and the Six-Day War, the 1967 war - when Israel took East Jerusalem, it declared immediately after the war - never be divided again and that in fact this would now be Israel's capital. Now, no one internationally accepted that position. Although ironically, again, as the president said correctly, everyone has dealt with Israel in Jerusalem because that's where the seat of government is.

KELLY: That's...

ROSS: So here, what you have is...

KELLY: The reality is that the...

ROSS: Yeah, you have an acknowledgement of reality.

KELLY: The legislature, the prime minster - they're all...

ROSS: Right.

KELLY: Yeah.

ROSS: You have an acknowledgment of reality. But then you get back into this question of, well, so how do you sort out the question of the totality of Jerusalem? The Palestinians clearly have claims. The Palestinians envision if they have a state, they can't imagine having a state without at least a part of Jerusalem being the capital for that state. So here's where you come back into the question of, all right, how are you going to sort this out?

And that's why saying the permanent status of Jerusalem can only be resolved through negotiation - as the president said, the boundaries have to be resolved. The sovereignty has to be resolved and who has it and where. Is there one capital? Are there two capitals for two states? All that has to be resolved through negotiation that has not been prejudged by what he did today.

KELLY: Does today's action rule that out - the idea that this could be a shared capital going forward, that the U.S. could recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and also as the capital of some future Palestinian state?

ROSS: If you listen to the words of what the president said, it does not rule that out.

KELLY: Does that give you hope that, you know, in some future career, as you're advising your fifth and sixth U.S. presidents (laughter), we may be having a different conversation down the road?

ROSS: Well, as someone who has worked on this for a very long time, almost by definition, I never give up hope because I think the minute you give up hope, you doom the possibility of ever being able to achieve peace. And I think one of the biggest problems we have right now is that both sides have lost all sense of possibility, and they disbelieve each other. The key to making an effort right now is, how do you restore a sense of possibility? How do you restore a sense that an agreement actually is possible?

KELLY: Dennis Ross, thank you.

ROSS: My pleasure.

KELLY: The longtime U.S. diplomat, also author of a book on U.S.-Israel relations titled "Doomed To Succeed." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.