US: 12/06/2017 – The day Jerusalem gained a US embassy, and Donald Trump threw away US leverage

Wherein J. BROOKS SPECTOR stares in amazed horror of just how foolishly Donald Trump has handled Middle East diplomacy in exchange for some love by his core supporters. And, just by the way, leaves his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to clean up the resulting mess.

On Wednesday afternoon Washington time, US President Donald Trump announced that his administration would now acknowledge one of those “facts on the ground” in the Middle East, even if pretty much the rest of the world was unwilling to go along with that particular Trumpian geography lesson. This singular fact is, of course, that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and that, as a result of his decision, the US would henceforth begin the process of moving its embassy there from Tel Aviv, that vibrant, cosmopolitan city on the Mediterranean Sea. According to the Donald, this recognition would aid, rather than kill off, any hopes for a reinvigorated Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

There was no discussion by the president of why the idea of Jerusalem-as-capital had been studiously elided around by the international community – including the US – until now – and suddenly found wanting. This just-reversed position, in fact, had been a bedrock element of US foreign policy that argued that agreement on the status of Jerusalem (and the borders thereof of the city) remains to be determined. This flows from the fact that the pre-1967 “line of control” reflected the ceasefire line after the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948, rather than any final determinations, and that “line of control” was not in accord with the original partition plan endorsed by the UN before that war and that the final decision must be agreed to by the parties facing each other.

In making this announcement, as Ishaan Tharoor, writing in The Washington Post, has noted,

Trump did so in the face of almost-unanimous opposition from the international community. For the second time in two weeks, he received a stern rebuke from the British prime minister; Pope Francis expressed his ‘deep concern’ over any move that disrupts the ‘status quo’ of the city; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an said the whole thing was a ‘red line’ for Muslims and threatened to cut diplomatic ties with Israel.

Figures as diverse as the French president, the Saudi king and the Iranian supreme leader reproached Trump for taking a decision that all believe imperils the prospects for a two-state solution. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose political career has hinged on being the main Arab interlocutor in the US-backed peace process, said Trump’s speech marked ‘a declaration of withdrawal’ by the United States from its role as a mediator between Israelis and Palestinians.

The only world leader who seemed pleased was exactly the one you would have guessed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamim Netanyahu said it was ‘a historic day…. Jerusalem has been the focus of our hopes, our dreams, our prayers for three millennia. Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years.’ The city’s authorities beamed a joint image of the Israeli and US flags on the Old City’s ramparts.”

If Tharoor is right, this Trump gambit has achieved several things. First, it has united most of the globe in opposition to this decision by the US president and in opposition to America more generally. Moreover, it has made it that much harder to give any life to an already near-flat-lining peace process. Moreover, it may have helped reignite more violent opposition to Israel’s continuing control of the West Bank and generate violent protests against America-connected facilities and personnel around the world, regardless of whether they are diplomats, members of the military, or private business figures and tourists.

Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin, reporting on how the US Department of State has already responded, noted,

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not want Trump to make his Jerusalem announcement Wednesday, but he still has to deal with the consequences. The State Department has set up a 24-hour task force to collect information and co-ordinate response to Trump’s speech, which has already caused protests at several US embassies and consulates abroad.

The State Department’s executive secretariat and bureau of Near East affairs stood up the task force Wednesday afternoon inside the seventh-floor operations center ‘to track worldwide developments following US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,’ according to an internal notice I obtained. The task force will include participation from State’s bureaus dealing with diplomatic security, consular affairs, public and legislative affairs and others.”

Yes, of course such precautions are routinely carried out whenever violent reactions to a policy are anticipated, or if there are imminent major natural or man-made calamities or when they are already on the go. The point is that here is a mess that almost inevitably will be a direct outgrowth of a policy announced with great fanfare on national and international television – and, in fact, effectively telegraphed ahead of time to many world leaders to let them gear up their astonishment, outrage and despair.

So, what, exactly, did Donald Trump announce on Wednesday night? First of all, he declared that henceforth, going forward (was this man somehow channelling that Bill Pullman speech to the troops in Independence Day just before they attack the alien mother ship?), the US would embrace the idea that Jerusalem is the capital of the Israeli nation, rather than just being the physical space held to be sacred to the world’s three great monotheistic religions. He pointed to the fact that the Israeli government is largely housed in the city and that it obviously has deep historical roots and resonances for Israelis.

As Tharoor explained,

In his remarks, the president hailed Jerusalem as ‘the capital the Jewish people established in ancient times’ and said it was time to take ‘a new approach’ to a conflict that has no resolution in sight. The irony here is that, no matter the claims to age-old right that accompany the debate over Jerusalem, the current dispute is profoundly modern. An earlier generation of secular Zionists was disinterested in the holy city, an abode of myriad sects and zealots, and focused on building Tel Aviv and other modern visions of the new Israeli state. But that changed over decades of war.”

However, for most Israelis, the “bright lights, big city” magnet still remains Tel Aviv. It is the country’s intellectual, cultural, financial, commercial and media centre, and all those clubs and restaurants. And besides, it has a lovely Mediterranean beach, in contrast to Jerusalem’s hills and attractions of religious and historical sites, although the “Jerusalem disease”, and the fanaticism that can accompany it, animates a significant share of those who move there.

Then Trump explained he would no longer sign those six-monthly waivers over moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, unlike those moral cowards who had preceded him in the White House since 1995 when the law that mandated moving the embassy to Jerusalem was first passed, absent one of those waivers signed by the president. And that, furthermore, he was directing the State Department to begin the process of sorting out the logistics of moving the American Embassy from its location in Tel Aviv with all the other embassies and ambassadors from some 88 nations to a brand new site set among the Judean Hills.

Trump added that moving the US embassy and recognising Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital city had been among his premier, signature foreign policy campaign promises, and that unlike other presidents, he keeps his promises. Inexplicably, and in defiance of the already expressed opinions from the Palestinian Authority’s leadership, he then argued that carrying out this promise would help re-energise the peace negotiations process for a two-state solution, but that he would largely leave the details of that to those most directly involved with this negotiation.

And then, with a vigorous wave of his hand and set look to his jaw, together with a vice-president who had been standing mute behind him through this whole escapade, Donald Trump left the White House’s Treaty Room for parts unknown. No questions, no comment beyond this statement. And so here was yet another gobsmacking moment in a continuously gobsmacking presidency.

But announcing an embrace of the idea of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city for the purposes of US government and actually moving an embassy there are quite different things. For one thing, an entirely new embassy must now meet rigorous safety and security protection standards, including sharply controlled access to the facility, significant setbacks from any street, and blast-proof construction methods.

As a result, construction of any new facility – following all those standard precautions – now takes around 3.5 to five years from start to finish. And, of course, sufficient land must be obtained and funds to plan, design, construct and furnish such a facility must be obligated as well – and this while the State Department is being savagely downsized. Then there will be the question of where its staffers will live – and how protected those residences must be to ensure they aren’t targets.

In fact, the US already maintains a consulate-general in Jerusalem, although its focus has been to connect with the Palestinian Arab population of the West Bank territories and East Jerusalem, rather than Israelis inside that country’s generally accepted boundaries. But swapping signposts between the facilities in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, or simply augmenting some additional US personnel in Jerusalem, is clearly not what Trump has had in mind for his grand gesture.

This is largely because it is actually not a foreign policy move in the traditional sense of the words at all. If it had been, rather than this personalised act of aggrandisement, the president would have been – or been made – acutely aware of the vast web of connections any international decision begins to affect on so many other issues.

Photo: Almost 100 years to the day, on 11 December 1917, British General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem after driving the Ottoman Turkish defenders from the city. Allenby’s capture of Jerusalem helped set in motion the events that culminated in the establishment of the modern state of Israel. Wikipedia

While Trump mouthed foreign policy goals in this announcement, it actually had the ring of being a real deliverable to several domestic constituencies instead. Otherwise, why undercut any possibility of restarting peace discussions, and why threaten to destabilise further the tottering informal alignment of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies (minus Qatar), Egypt, and Israel versus Iran and Hezbollah? And why undermine the publicly announced role of Trump’s son-in-law and senior aide, Jared Kushner, as the White House’s point person for those Middle East peace discussions by pumping up the ire of so many Islamic nations?

Instead, this was largely a domestic constituency issue, wrapped in the garb of foreign policy, besides his embrace of Binyamin Netanyahu as a tough guy in a tougher neighbourhood. Trump has continued to be desperate to pander to his electoral base – and in particular to the large Christian evangelical/ fundamentalist/ born-again portion of it (which is no mean segment of voters and supporters, comprising tens of millions of reliably Republican votes). And these individuals are deeply supportive of US recognition of the Israeli capital as Jerusalem. This seems tied up with beliefs concerning the need for a reunited biblical Israel in part fulfilment of prophesies that can lead to the final rapture, the increasingly imminent end of days, and the ascension to heaven by the blessed.

A second element is a relatively small (out of the total population of Jewish Americans) but vocal body of supporters among fervent Zionists and their respective organisations. Think Jared Kushner for one. They are organised, and the organised and financially generous in campaigns can have a real impact in politics. This remains true even if the vast majority of American Jews, just as their parents and grandparents have done before them, have continued to support Democratic candidates for president since the time of Franklin Roosevelt, and even as Trump had relatively little luck with most of them, just as was the case with his party forebears.

A third element seems to consist of one man – Sheldon Adelson – who apparently donated some $25-million to Trump campaign efforts and super-PACs strongly related to his candidacy. Trump and Adelson seem to have formed a strong personal bond and the latter has been lobbying Trump on Jerusalem rather heavily for some time. On Wednesday, he got his reward. Adelson made his fortune with casinos in Las Vegas and Macau, China, so apparently he knows how to bet.

Taken together, these represent a strong domestic set of interests that have played strongly to Trump’s own inner feelings about Islam, about Israel as a besieged part of the democratic west, and about the need to support those who are most strongly opposed to ISIS or its successors or its supporters.

But in doing this, he has given away any real sense of being the head of the only government that can help nudge the contesting parties towards a more final settlement, even as he extracted no concessions (at least none that have been reported, rumoured about, or even given the wink-wink-nudge-nudge treatment) from the Israelis.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, a man who has been reporting on the Middle East for decades, wrote the other day, and his column is worth quoting at length,

In nearly 30 years of covering United States foreign policy, I’ve never seen a president give up so much to so many for so little, starting with China and Israel. In both the Middle Kingdom and in the Land of Israel, Christmas came early this year. The Chinese and the Jews are both whispering to their kids: ‘There really is a Santa Claus.’ And his name is Donald Trump.

Who can blame them? Let’s start with Israel, every Israeli government since its founding has craved United States recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. And every United States government has refrained from doing that, arguing that such a recognition should come only in the wake of an agreed final status peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians — until now.

Today, Trump just gave it away — for free. Such a deal! Why in the world would you just give this away for free and not even use it as a lever to advance the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian deal?

Trump could have said two things to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. First, he could have said: ‘Bibi, you keep asking me to declare Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. O.K., I will do that. But I want a deal. Here’s what I want from you in return: You will declare an end to all Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, outside of the existing settlement block that everyone expects to be part of Israel in any two-state solution.’

Such a trade-off is needed. It would produce a real advance for United States interests and for the peace process. As Dennis Ross, the veteran American Middle East peace negotiator and author of Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israeli Relationship From Truman to Obama, explained: ‘When you stop building outside the settlement blocs, you preserve, at a maximum, the possibility of a two-state outcome and, at a minimum, the ability for Israelis to separate from Palestinians. Keep up the building in densely populated Palestinian areas and separation becomes impossible.’

Trump also could have said, as the former United States ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk suggested, that he’d decided ‘to begin the process of moving the embassy to western Jerusalem, but at the same time was declaring his willingness to make a parallel announcement that he would establish an embassy to the state of Palestine in East Jerusalem’ — as part of any final status agreement. That would at least have insulated us from looking like making a one-sided gesture will only complicate peacemaking and kept the door open to Palestinians.

In either case, Trump could then have boasted to Israelis and Palestinians that he got them each something that Barack Obama never did — something that advanced the peace process and United States credibility and did not embarrass our Arab allies. But Trump is a chump. And he is a chump because he is ignorant and thinks the world started the day he was elected, and so he is easily gamed.”

But because he did none of those things, he has, instead, given away much American leverage over Israel and simultaneously poked a stick in the beehive that can be a stand-in for much of the Arab world. This was at a time when an increasing number of Arabs had begun focusing on more immediately consequential issues than the continuing stalemate of the Palestinian-Israeli connection, or even the evolving Israeli encroachment on areas around Jerusalem for settlements.

As Anne Barnard, Ben Hubbard and Declan Walsh reported from Beirut, for the New York Times,

While Arab leaders have continued to pay lip service to the Palestinian cause, it has slipped in importance, displaced by the Arab Spring uprisings, the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the threat of the Islamic State, and the contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional dominance. Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, more concerned about their rivalry with Iran, have found their interests increasingly overlapping with those of Israel.

Arab leaders have often counted on declarations of support for the Palestinian cause as a reliable way to appeal to their people, and sometimes as a distraction from domestic problems, including lack of political freedoms and economic opportunities. But while the passion for the Palestinian cause among many Arabs was genuine, those in power often exploited it for their own aims.”

But for many, other more pressing issues – both rulers and the ruled – now include the continuing political and societal aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Iranian-Hezbollah move out into many parts of the Arab world coupled with the possibility of Iranian nuclear developments, and even the possibility of an outright Iranian-Saudi war – spilling out of current hostilities in Yemen.

Instead, however, this decision by Donald Trump (in a situation where his diplomatic and military cabinet officials were reported to oppose it) has given away American leverage – and for what, exactly? No one can really say what has been gained by this decision.

To understand this, perhaps the story from Genesis 25 in the Bible should be summoned as a witness. This is the episode where Jacob is cooking a meal and his starving brother, Esau, approaches him to beg for food lest he die of starvation. Jacob offers to give him a bowl of his stew and some bread, but only if Esau will surrender his birth right as the first-born son of their father Isaac and thus heir to all of Isaac’s flocks. Famished, Esau does so, but only as he curses the trickery that has now denied him his due as the rightful heir – for “a mess of potage”. And that, of course, with allowances for a translation from the sags of the ancient world to that of the 21st century, is what Donald Trump may now have achieved for America and its influence in the Middle East. And he doesn’t even like potage. DM

Photo: Palestinians refugees attend a protest against the US President decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in Jabaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, 07 December 2017. US president Donald J. Trump on 06 December announced he is recognising Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and will relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. EPA-EFE/MOHAMMED SABER


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