December 7, 2017
President Trump has finally signed the Act which recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, fulfilling a campaign promise.
Was this a priority for his supporters? While the decision may enjoy broad bipartisan support in the Congress, his voters’ priorities seem to be different. A Brookings poll showed that 63 percent of all Americans oppose moving the Embassy to Jerusalem, including 44 percent of Republicans.
According to White House officials who were busy preparing world public opinion before the announcement, the decision was “a recognition of reality” by the US government. “Nothing in this decision speaks to a final status resolution, or boundaries or sovereignty issues… It doesn’t change the status quo with respect to the holy sites and other very sensitive issues…” they reportedly said. Moreover, they underlined that President Trump remains supportive of a two-state solution.
Thus, President Trump’s remarks on the Jerusalem Embassy Act contained no element of surprise. And, he confirmed that the US would support a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides. In fact, during his press conference with PM Netanyahu in Washington soon after his inauguration, Mr. Trump had said:
“So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one…”
Obviously, the groundwork done by administration officials was aimed at blunting international criticism. But, the “recognition of reality” argument can be a double-edged sword because there could be situations where the reality may not correspond with US interests. For example, North Korea is, in reality, a nuclear power but Washington seems determined not to recognize it as such.
Was this a unanimous decision by President Trump’s foreign and security policy team?
Yesterday, before Mr. Trump made his remarks, Secretary Tillerson stated the following at a press conference in Brussels:
“… What I would encourage people to do is a couple of things. First, listen carefully to the entirety of the speech; listen to the full content of the speech. The President is very committed to the Middle East peace process. He has a team that he put in place almost immediately upon entering the White House. That team has been working very diligently on new approaches to the peace process. They’ve been engaged in a quiet way with many in the region around that process. They’ve shared it with me so that I could give them my steer on certain elements of the process, give them guidance on areas that I thought would be challenging to address, and they’ve gone – they’ve done the hard work to try to address those…”
Mr. Tillerson may have been trying his best to show that he and the President are on the same wavelength on Jerusalem but in the light of their earlier policy disagreements he doesn’t sound very convincing.
Would all Israelis rejoice?
Yes, but a good number of them would also be concerned. Without a shadow of doubt, PM Netanyahu also sees Mr. Trump’s decision as yet another blow to the Middle East legacy of President Obama with whom he was never on good terms.
Would Washington’s traditional friends and allies be critical or supportive of the decision?
As the evolution of EU’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and recent statements show, they have serious differences with the Trump White House.
On Tuesday, Secretary Tillerson held a joint press conference with EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini in Brussels. As could be expected, she said, “… During our bilateral meeting we discussed mainly four issues; first of all, the Middle East peace process, the European Union support, the resumption of a meaningful peace process towards a two-state solution. We believe that any action that would undermine these efforts must absolutely be avoided. A way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states so that the aspiration of both parties can be fulfilled…”
What about Russia and China?
They are likely to remain concerned but also reserved and they will look for opportunities that Mr. Trump’s decision may create for them.
Arab and Muslim countries?
Last Sunday, The Jerusalem Post, reporting under the heading “Arab States Will Likely Cave in if US Declares Jerusalem Israel’s Capital”, said that “unless domestic reaction becomes unexpectedly explosive, Riyadh, Cairo and Amman can be expected to confine their responses to verbal missives that will soon subside.”
Indeed, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) will undoubtedly hold emergency meetings and issue statements. However, both organizations have been of no consequence in stopping the carnage in the Middle East and enjoy little credibility. Gulf countries are not only at odds with Iran but also among themselves. All of this may have encouraged Mr. Trump to move now. The decision is a challenge for most Arab leaders but it will put the Palestinian leadership and Jordan, America’s longstanding Arab ally, in a more difficult position than others. In brief, whether The Jerusalem Post or those predicting increased regional tensions would eventually prove to be right remains to be seen.
So, the reasons underlying Mr. Trump’s decision to go ahead with the Jerusalem Embassy Act at this particular time, it’s potential costs/benefits will keep analysts busy in the coming days. While some would say that President Trump’s announcement has not changed the status quo, others would argue that he could and should have said more on Palestinian aspirations. However, the questions “why” and “why now” may not be answered fully.
Whatever his regional considerations, Mr. Trump’s decision gives the impression that he remains determined as ever to prove that he and he alone rules in Washington and to contradict his predecessors. If the world were to look back at Mr. Obama’s approach to the Middle East conflict and that of his successor, most would agree that there is a great change of mood, if nothing else.
What about Turkey?
Before his announcement, Trump made a series of calls to leaders in the region, including Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egypt’s President al-Sisi, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. He could also have called President Erdogan who is the current Chair of the OIC Summit but he didn’t because Turkish-American relations are at their lowest point ever.
Last Tuesday President Erdogan went further than all other critics of Mr. Trump’s potential move and said, “… Al-Quds is Muslims’ red line… This might result in cutting diplomatic relations with Israel…”
As a matter of fact, the so-called Turkish-Israeli reconciliation settling Mavi Marmara grievances has not changed the hostile relationship between Mr. Netanyahu and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) leadership. Since Turkey cannot afford to break diplomatic ties with Washington and recall its ambassador, it’s reaction to Mr. Trump’s decision may lead to further disturbance in relations with Israel. And, Ankara may even find this useful to distract attention from its multitude of internal problems.
Almost a year ago, I concluded a post on the issue of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem with the following (*):
“… More important than OIC member states’ individual or collective reaction, however, would be the huge opportunity created for Deash, its likes and radical ideologies to use such a move to increase their appeal. This would serve nobody’s interest including the US and Israel. When I was received by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on March 13, 2002 in his office at the Knesset to deliver a written message from his Turkish counterpart Bulent Ecevit, he had welcomed me to “Jerusalem, the undivided and eternal capital of Israel”. This is the Israeli position. The international community has a different position. Nobody is happy but this is the status quo.
“With the negative consequences of the invasion of Iraq becoming clearer every passing day, Washington needs to avoid another misstep which would further complicate its relations with the region.”
I still hold the same view.
(*) A Wrong Move at the Worst Time, January 26, 2017