Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJulian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy Overnight Energy & Environment — League of Conservation Voters — Climate summit chief says US needs to 'show progress' on environment Five takeaways from Arizona's audit results MORE’s announcement this week that the U.S. will recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital violates international law, increases the likelihood of violence against Palestinians, Israelis and Americans, upturns decades of official U.S. policy, puts Washington at odds with almost every other country in the world, and rewards Israeli leaders for appropriating and colonizing Palestinian land.
And, now that I’ve said all that, I’m not sure that this policy shift is as significant (as opposed to imprudent or unjust) as some analysts argue. It is not clear that it will change much in the Middle East.
If this sounds like somewhat good news, the underlying reason that the Jerusalem move may not matter all that much is that the region in already in a truly awful state, and not likely to get better soon. And the fact that the U.S. seemed to know it might have minimal repercussions is a sign of how willing many governments in the Middle East are to quash their citizens’ preferences on issues like Palestine to keep themselves in power.
Trump’s policy shift likely was motivated by U.S. politics. It resonates well with his base, and allows him to overturn another Obama policy. Also, he keeps a promise that he made on the campaign trail, which he can’t — or won’t do — with respect to assurances that he’d help the middle class or drain the swamp.
Trump’s possible ignorance of the effects of his U.S.-oriented postures on the rest of the world helps fuel anger toward him. However, in the case of the shift on Israel’s capital, odds are that the global effects will merely bolster existing trends. With respect to Israel itself, the U.S. shift merely ratifies officially a broader international willingness to treat Israel as if its center of government is in Jerusalem, while refusing to proclaim this officially because it rankles Palestinians and other Arabs.
Moreover, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital also symbolically threatens the parallel claim that it should serve as the capital of a Palestinian state, and has been treated as a move that should only happen as part of a peace deal between Palestine and Israel. Finally, the U.S. looks unduly biased toward Israel in endorsing the latter’s claim without acknowledging part of Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital.
What deflates these concerns today is the widespread belief that most countries already act as if Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and that the U.S. is so far from seeming unduly biased in the long conflict that there is no real peace process in any case. Thus, hand-wringing that Trump’s move took the wind out of the sails of his son-in-law’s grandiose plans to engineer Palestinian-Israeli peace is somewhat beside the point. Few people with long-term knowledge have held hope for a viable peace process, as opposed to continuing one-sided efforts to force Palestinians to acquiesce to a neutered, Swiss-cheese, quasi-self-governing entity nowhere near close to the normal, independent nation-state they wish.
The bigger reason that the embassy move may not matter much is that Arab leaders today are generally so concerned with limiting their citizens’ expression in the name of stability that they will prioritize controlled expressions of public disgust, coupled with intensive efforts to stop popular protests, over a sustained effort to pressure Israel or the U.S. This may even be the case with Palestinian Authority and Hamas leaders in the West Bank and Gaza, despite deep and understandable anger on the ground.
It will likely be true in the two most populous Arab countries of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The two have intensified cooperation based on Saudi (and Gulf partners’) willingness to bankroll Egypt’s challenged economy in exchange for Saudi Arabia’s emerging role as the Arab world’s regional power. This bargain is premised on linking military and political assets, including Israel, to seek to reduce growing Iranian regional influence, as well as to scare citizens with concerns about Islamist extremism or the devastating breakdown of basic order in the aftermath of the 2011 popular uprisings of Syria and Yemen.
Saudi efforts to strengthen their direct regional role are part of a broader trend of decreasing U.S. authority in the Middle East — one that Trump’s policies are merely accelerating. Fear of populist violence and the need for unity against an external threat in turn allows governments like Egypt and Saudi Arabia to crack down on dissent, whether in the form of internal protesters or perceived other Arab governments that don’t conform to Saudi Arabia’s regional priorities or leadership, like Lebanon and Qatar.
There is an emerging Saudi-led regional emphasis on confronting Iran, embracing possible military action, as the Saudis have done in Yemen, and building on fear of post-2011 instability that leaves little permitted space for vocal Middle Eastern mobilization around Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and territory, or U.S. complicity. For this reason, and the broader, sadly little-realized fact that most Arabs, like people generally, are not waiting for a pretext to commit acts of political violence, Washington’s shift in recognizing Israel’s claimed capital may raise the temperature of discourse in the Middle East. But it probably won’t change the inability of Palestinians, and Arabs who support them, to mobilize in a meaningful political way with their own governments determined to stop this from happening.
Thus, Trump’s Jerusalem move could well end up as just another pretext for many Middle Eastern governments to repress their own citizens in the name of stability and fighting terrorism. And, for now at least, with rulers that have strongly authoritarian instincts running most Arab countries, Israel, Turkey, China, Russia and the U.S., and with conflict and humanitarian catastrophe blighting Gaza, Libya, Syria and Yemen, stability may appear more desirable to most people than further risky protest and armed struggle. Until at last it doesn’t, and the lid finally blows violently off the broader stew of repression, divisiveness and injustice that too many of today’s leaders are content to let simmer, and even stir.
David Mednicoff is professor of Public Policy and director of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.