Trump letting campaign promises dictate Israeli embassy decision

Trump letting campaign promises dictate Israeli embassy decision
© Courtesy WhiteHouse.gov

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel and put in motion a plan to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to the Holy City.

In so doing, he has upended seven decades of U.S. foreign policy, garnered near universal international condemnation and stepped into the thorniest section of what may be the world’s most thorny issue.

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Two days before, the president had delayed signing a waiver to the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, passed to fund and relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Every president since has signed that waiver, twice a year "in the interests of national security."

 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE then spoke to regional leaders to let them know that he would probably recognize Jerusalem as the capital. Reportedly, every single leader he spoke to warned him against it. They were joined by a slew of European leaders, including the Germans, the British, the French, the European Union and, to cap matters off, the Pope.

There were also warnings from his own State Department — the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs was reportedly against the recognition in no uncertain terms because of the potential for regional violence and an inevitable adverse effect on the U.S.’s regional credibility.

While the signature facet of Trump’s presidency has been the ability to go it alone, the ramifications of this decision, however, will extend far beyond his usual scope.

In some ways, the act was not a surprise. It was a campaign promise that was essential to a significant section of his base — supporters of the State of Israel and evangelical Christians — and President Trump has consistently sought to prove that he can keep his campaign promises.

Some of his more prominent supporters, like the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who contributed $25 million to Trump’s campaign, were said to be particularly disappointed when the last waiver was signed six months ago. Trump’s address today will banish that disappointment.

However, this is part of the problem — that international policy appears to be being dictated on the basis of a promise to a domestic constituency.

Internationally, the ramifications are far greater. The status of Jerusalem is central to any Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. The city contains the third-holiest place in Islam, the Haram Al-Sharif and the holiest one in Judaism, the Temple Mount.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem during the 1967 war and the international community does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the area. Israel, however, has settled over 200,000 of its people there, in what the international community recognizes as illegal settlements.

Approximately 37 percent of the city’s inhabitants are Arab. Around three quarters of them live below the poverty line and a quarter of them are cut off from the rest of the city by Israel’s separation barrier.

The Palestinians have acceded to many demands over their years of largely fruitless negotiation, but East Jerusalem as the capital of a two-state solution will not conceivably be one of them. By making a unilateral and apparently de facto statement on the status of the city, the president has effectively removed one of the critical factors of any negotiation.

This has left the Palestinian leadership with an impossible quandary: How can it credibly tell its people that it will take part in any peace settlement driven by the U.S. when the U.S. appears to have handed them a fait accompli and Israel a victory before negotiations have even started?

Hamas (which has only just come to a peace with Fatah, brokered by the Egyptians) has already called for a "Day of Rage" in response. It’s worth noting that the Second Intifada was set off by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visiting the Haram Al-Sharif or Temple Mount in September 2000.

Almost four years later, when the Madrid talks largely stemmed the bloodletting, approximately 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis had been killed in the ensuing violence.

The move has also effectively crippled the ability of the U.S. to drive the peace settlement in any credible manner, opening the door for other players, mostly notably the Russians and further sidelining the Americans.

The current U.S. efforts are being led by Trump's son-in-law and special advisor, Jared Kushner, but it is almost impossible to see how he can move the process forward in light of this announcement.

There is a gaping disconnect between the president’s claims that this move will benefit the peace process and the reality, which is that the announcement is effectively a death knell of any U.S.-brokered plan.

The U.S. is also effectively hamstringing its regional allies, many of whom will find themselves in an impossible situation.

Jordan, in particular, will be left in the lurch; King Abdullah II is the custodian of the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and about 30 percent (3.4 million) of Jordan's population is of Palestinian origin and 2.4 million are refugees. The possibilities of civil unrest, particularly in light of continued cooperation with the United States, loom very large.

Egypt is fighting an insurgency in the north of Sinai, many of whose members have been traced back to Gaza. The formal recognition of Jerusalem might not only aggravate that insurgency but is likely to be an absolute boon to ISIS recruiters the world over, driving a wedge between the U.S. and essential allies in the fight against extremists.

Saudi Arabia, one of the United States' closest allies, repeatedly warned Trump against making the announcement. The country sponsored what is known as the Arab Peace Initiative, also known as the Saudi Initiative, already has skin in the peace settlement game.

That initiative had called for normalizing relations between the Arabs and Israel in return for a withdrawal from East Jerusalem and occupied lands and a "just settlement."

Over the past few days, however, there have been rumors that the Saudis have pressured the Palestinians to accept a deal that favors the Israelis more than any settlement before. They remain rumors, however, and Saudi Arabia will be unable to justify, or indeed, accept this new development.

The biggest losers, however, will be, as always, the Palestinians. The greatest danger will be that they will backed into one last corner, with no possibility of, or support for, a negotiated settlement.

At that point, it will be difficult for them to continue to fight those internal elements who claim that negotiations are a waste of time and that violence is the only recourse. The first targets of such violence may very well be American interests.

President Trump, the ultimate deal maker, will need to navigate the next phase of this deal very, very carefully.

Mirette F. Mabrouk is deputy director and director of research and programs for the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.