‘Therefore, I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.’
President Donald Trump has further instructed the State Department to begin the process of moving its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, with Rex Tillerson also engaging other countries to join in relocating.
In yet another bombshell, the President of the United States unleashed a wave of condemnation across the world. With the obvious exception of Israel, leaders left and right have rushed in to accuse Mr Trump of exacerbating existing tensions within the region; British Prime Minister Theresa May called it ‘unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region,’ and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres deemed it as, ‘a moment of great anxiety.’
Palestinian authorities were outraged, with calls for another intifada to take place. The response by their Arab neighbours has seemingly been in similar vein. At the time of writing, protests have already broken out, with scores of Palestinians injured in clashes with Israeli troops across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and one fatally shot dead as of Friday.
The Multifaceted Aspects of Trump’s Move
There are a number of dimensions to consider when examining the implications of Trump’s latest move, and to simply label it as populist policymaking would not do it justice.
In that same speech, he talked about how he was a President that was finally ‘delivering’ in the elusive search for lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace where his predecessors had seemingly failed to do so for two decades. This self-aggrandizing is not new and has been characteristic of his presidency.
Yet, it must be noted that Trump is delivering – not peace and reconciliation, but on a campaign promise he had made. Trump is a charismatic showman, but even more so a stubborn politician. This move was made against th counsel of both Rex Tillerson, his foreign secretary, and defence secretary James Mattis, in favour of keeping a promise he had made to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee back in March of 2016.
As highlighted in the New York Times, Sheldon Adelson, a pro-Israel casino billionaire, is close to Trump and donated an estimated $25m to his campaign.
In fact, Mr Adelson serves as the single largest political donor not only to the Republican Party, but between both major parties, forking out millions in both 2012 and 2016. In addition to Mr Adelson and Jewish lobbying arms are the evangelical Christian groups that made switching to Jerusalem a top priority among their influential ranks. The numbers speak: in a 2014 Pew Survey, a staggering 82% of evangelicals were of the opinion that Israel was the land given by God to the Jews, with less than half of American Jews sharing the same sentiment.
John Hagee, leader of the Christians United for Israel, spoke of how, in each meeting with Trump and his Vice President Mike Pence, the embassy’s relocation to Jerusalem was brought up. Earlier this year, Pence, speaking at the Hagee’s group’s annual summit, described how the issue of moving the embassy was not an issue of how, but of when.
Trump’s move is aided further by the aforementioned Arab neighbours. To assume that the relocation would harm relations between the US and its Arab allies would be superficial, to say the least. It should be noted that the most important group of allies – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – are united with Israel, and by extension the US, on a number of key issues. These include the mutual belief of Iran being the region’s most dangerous destabilizing force, along with the acknowledgement of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group.
Saudi Arabia stands as the most peculiar case. As the birthplace of Islam and the location of the two of the three holiest Islamic shrines (in Mecca and Medina), Saudi Arabia sees itself as the custodian of the religion; the de facto guardian of Muslims across the globe. However, symbolism gives way to a ruthless pragmatism, spearheaded by the ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
Bin Salman, whose recent top-down anti-corruption measures have swayed public opinion in his favour, is close to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Adding to that is the alleged Saudi proposal, which, as reported by the Times, would lead to Palestine accepting limited sovereignty and a total forfeiture of Jerusalem. This, in effect, draws the Saudi regime close to Israel and the most anti-Islam administration in US history.
Are Arab Countries Indifferent?
Yet the current situation serves as a further reminder that the majority of leadership in the Arab world are, admittedly, indifferent to the Palestinian grievances. It is not aided by the status of these regimes – they are mostly unelected autocratic monarchies and thus do not reflect the will of the people. Further adding to that is how the Saudis’ onslaught on Yemen has further made a farce of any genuine Arab unity. A humanitarian crisis affecting millions of (mostly Muslims) is being instigated by the self-professed protector of all Muslims.
It would be naïve to neglect the Arab populaces in this discussion. Unlike their leaders who limit Israel-Palestine to rhetoric, the common Arab continues to see Palestine as an important symbol – representing decades of oppression, betrayal, and disunity. These same feelings form the foundations for extremism to be nurtured. Trump’s move reignites Palestine as a rallying cry for Muslims, who perceive his administration as being openly at war with Muslims.
Provocative populist nationalism serves its purpose in the short run, yet in the long run, especially in a region as volatile as the Middle East, it harbours even more anti-American resentment. Couple this latest move with Trump’s proposed travel ban, and the sentiment among Muslims is justified.
Terror groups, aided by social media’s ever-increasing role, prey exactly on people who are disillusioned and disheartened. The Islamic State, it must be noted, is far from being defeated, and this latest measure acts as a gift for recruiters with which to radicalise unsuspecting young men and women.
Extremist Islamic parties will also be in ‘celebratory’ mood, with those in US ally Pakistan being of particular importance. Designated terror group Laskar-e-Taiba’s (LET) founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed (accused of terrorist attacks in India) was recently released, and has set his eye on national elections.
Terrorist groups based in Kashmir have called upon lone wolves to attack American and Israeli embassies around the world as a result of this, with the Gaza-based Al Tawheed Brigades firing rockets at Israel. Pro-IS media group Tarjuman al-Asawirti described how the US understood only the language of bullets, car bombs, IEDs and the slitting of throats.’
Exacerbating this situation is the lack of diplomats on hand skilled enough to mitigate the fallout from this, though it must be considered that a long-term strategy hasn’t exactly been characteristic of the Trump administration, at least not in foreign policy. Fadah Pandith, former special representative to Muslim Communities at the State Department, questioned the timing of Trump’s latest move-right before Christmas-and describes how it exposed Americans to greater dangers.
The Implications of the Decision
What does this pronouncement? Just another macho publicity stunt? Detractions aside, there is a positive element in Trump’s latest decision. Formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by the US to Israel will put the former in a position of greater bargaining. This bargaining can include asking considerable concessions on part of the Israelis.
As for the Palestinians, this latest development, according to Emile Nakhleh, former CIA Senior Intelligence Service member, can hopefully act as a jolt for the Palestinian leadership. Hamas has proven to be an ineffective governing body, whilst the Palestinian Authority (PA) has long been mired in rampant corruption.
Their legitimacies are now being threatened and, in the face of rapid erosion, this latest move by the US can help galvanize the need to speed up peace talks, contrary to assumptions that it was the final nail in the coffin. This is the scenario desired by Trump, but it is only wishful thinking.
In the long run, however, it must be noted that nuance and compromise are central towards preventing tensions from escalating. Trump’s announcement has opened the floodgates to a number of speculations on whether there will be another intifada and, more importantly, on whether the two-state solution is still viable. The latter notion has gained traction recently, with Palestinian politicians now expressing interest in a one-state solution instead.
Yet this may be, again, unrealistic. Gaith al-Omari, a former adviser to the PA, states how these are empty threats, and that a two-state solution must persevere, and will continue to do so. The bottom line is that the US will still have a significant role to play in Israel-Palestine-the lingering question is how significant it will be.
Most importantly, the solution drawn must ensure that it does not leave one side gloating, and the other humiliated and disgruntled, which this latest move has clearly been unable to prevent. The Israel-Palestine conflict will continue to fester and ruin the lives of millions in the absence of compromise and understanding.
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