December 13, 2017

Trump’s Move on Jerusalem

U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to leave a note at the Western Wall in Jerusalem May 22, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to leave a note at the Western Wall in Jerusalem May 22, 2017.

On 22 May 2017, Donald Trump became the first sitting US President to set foot in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The White House declared immediately that his visit to the ancient holy place of Jews, Christians and Muslims, was “private” and “unofficial”, although it was part of the President’s first week-long official trip abroad, to the Middle-East.

Donald Trump declared repeatedly during his 2016 presidential election campaign that as President he will recognize Jerusalem, “reunified” by Israel since the Six-Day War in June 1967, as the capital of the Jewish state, and move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to the city. On 6 December 2017, Trump made his move and kept his promise that was expected by many of his American voters, especially evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews and other pro-Israel Republicans.

Formally, President Trump enforced a decision taken –to that effect- by the US Congress already in October 1995 (the Jerusalem Embassy Act), albeit without seriously considering why his predecessors —Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barrack Obama—refrained from making this step. Trump’s interest seems to be once again limited to boasting about delivering however controversial personal promises, in spite of anticipated and inevitable international political damage and outrage.

President Trump clearly understood that his decision is not a mere formality in declaring a “new approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Jared Kushner was appointed by his father-in-law Donald Trump as the principal US actor in the Middle East, including the decades-long peace process. He has a personal relationship with the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, who had a hard relationship with Obama and hopes more from Trump. However, the American president seems to lack sufficient knowledge and understanding of the Arab world. This “new approach” already seems to be directed by a handful of Trump administration insides, like Jared Kushner, who has reportedly left in the dark even the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

On 8 December 2017, the UN Security Council discussed the issue in an emergency meeting. The Swedish Ambassador Olof Skoog stated: “Jerusalem is a final status issue and can therefore only be resolved through negotiations agreed between the parties.” Other close US allies Including UK, France, Italy, as well as Germany, disagreed with President Trump’s decision. However, the US remains defiant, and Ambassador Nikki Haley declared that “[the] United Nations has outrageously been [one] of the world’s foremost centers of hostility toward Israel,” and “[the] U.N. has done much more to damage the prospects for Middle East peace than to advance them.”

What could be the international consequences of Trump’s move on Jerusalem? Fist, the sentiment of despair among Palestinians and their Arab supporters will deepen. The two-state solution of 2003 (including East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian State) seems to be further away than ever before, considering also that Jewish settlements and the Israeli walls continue to spread in the West Bank.

Secondly, despair may translate into a new wave of violence and terrorist acts in the Middle East and elsewhere, including Europe. Hamas and Hezbollah seem determined to take revenge.

Thirdly, the United States, as the traditional main ally of Israel, can be hardly accepted any longer by Arab nations, particularly the Palestinians, as the main peace-broker. President Obama lost in Syria when he refused to take action after the regime of Bashar al-Assad crossed the repeated chemical weapons use red line in 2013. Conversely, while Trump took a one-time action after al-Assad used once again chemical weapons, US policy seems to have no more serious impact on the behavior of the Assad regime. Now, Trump may lose the determining role of the US in the Israel-Palestine peace-process, which has developed since the 1978 Camp Davidaccords.

In fact, a new political vacuum may be created in the Middle East, this time not by US retreat or inaction (Obama), but by ill-thought “new approaches.” On the other hand, Russia stands eager to fill the vacuum and has found yet another good basis to tighten its relations with Turkey.