It is now official. President Donald Trump announced recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal” capital, reversing long-held American policy. He ordered the State Department to “begin preparations to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”
Israeli Knesset passed a bill in 1980 declaring that Jerusalem, in its entirety, as its “eternal” and “undivided” capital. It is not clear if Trump’s declaration reflects that vision or there is still scope for Palestinians to realize their dream of having East Jerusalem as their future capital.
It is no surprise that he would take such a decision nor of its timing as he is true to his word in implementing most of his campaign promises, how contentious they may be.
He has already implemented many of his other, equally controversial, campaign declarations on foreign policy issues, such as withdrawing from multi-lateral trade agreements, forcing allies to pay more for their security, preventing Muslim immigrants and refugees from “radical” Islamic states, etc.
TRUMP TREADS THORNY PATH: CAN HE HANDLE BACKLASH?
From a foreign policy perspective, most countries condemned it as a “reckless” and “dangerous” act that could push the already “volatile” Middle East into utter chaos which will have serious security implications for not only the US interests but also that of its allies in the region and elsewhere.
The decision is expected to strengthen the very forces in the region that Trump administration has set out to defeat, namely Iran and Islamic terrorist groups. While most Arab leaders, aligned with the US, would be restrained in their criticism of the move, the Arab street is likely to erupt into flames and extend support to hardliners.
Iran’s arc of influence from Iraq to Lebanon is likely to be extended to Palestinian areas and the efforts to bring reconciliation between the PLO and the Hamas in Gaza would come under severe strain. Even Houthis, backed by Iran, in Yemen may gain an upper hand further eroding whatever moral influence that the Saudis are wielding thus far.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is already in a precarious state with Saudis and Emirates forming a new union to banish Qatar, which is facing sanctions imposed by them along with Bahrain and Egypt. The much-touted Islamic Military Coalition launched by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) might start showing cracks if Riyadh is unable to lead the Arab anger against the American move and get the US President offer an acceptable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Trump administration’s policy formulation on the issue is still in the making and is likely to be announced early next year. His son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and his team of advisers (mostly comprising orthodox Jews and a Coptic Christian) are said to be in the final stages of drafting the plan. Kushner said at the Saban conference at the Brookings Institute on December 4, “Trump is focused on reaching a final settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – not interim solutions or trust building exercises.”
While the plan is yet to be made public, Kushner and MBS are apparently coordinating with each other and an outline of it was presented by the latter to President Abbas.
According to some unofficial leaks of the plan, “Palestinians would get limited sovereignty over a state that covers only noncontiguous parts of the West Bank. Most Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which most of the world considers illegal, would remain. The Palestinians would not get East Jerusalem as their capital, and there would be no right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants,” according to New York Times. A small town near East Jerusalem is to be offered as the capital instead.
If this is truly the outline of the proposed settlement plan, it can be written off as “dead even before arrival”. It means the proposed “two-state solution” is dead. More favourable solutions offered by former Prime Ministers Yitzak Rabin and Ehud Olmert were rejected by the Palestinians. What the new proposal means is effectively a “one-state” solution.
No country, including close American allies, would be able to accept such a formula. Ultimately, US may be the only country to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. At least, for a long time to come.
Why then Trump has taken such a decision, knowing well that he has to tread the thorny path all alone?
IS IT A MAVERICK OR CALCULATED MOVE?
While the decision appears to be a maverick one for a casual observer, it reflects a “tectonic shift” in American Jewish support from the Democratic Party to the Republicans. Some of the reasons for this swing include increase in Orthodox Jewish population and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s strategic decision to shift alliance to the Republican Party following his strained relations with President Obama over Iran nuclear deal and Jewish settlements in Jerusalem and West Bank.
Samuel G. Freedman, author of several books on American Jewry, writing in an article in the Forward, stated that the Trump’s speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on March 21, 2016 proved decisive for his electoral success with much of the media coverage commenting that he now “looks presidential”. Jewish money started pouring in. Sheldon Adelson formally endorsed Trump in May 2016 and pledged to spend $90 million to help elect him, saying Trump “will be good for Israel.”
“The deep divides that have opened within American Jewry and between American Jews and many Israeli Jews result solely or primarily from the toxic relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu or, more specifically, from their mutually bitter campaign about the Iran nuclear deal. What happened was that Netanyahu made a strategic decision to align Israel with the Republican Party and particularly to look at evangelical Christians as a replacement for liberal and moderate American Jews in terms of being reliable allies. These so-called Christian Zionists, unlike most American Jews, could be counted on to support the settlement enterprise.”
Jews in the United States, despite being a mere 2% of the nation’s population, wield disproportionate influence on both the Presidential and Congressional elections. It is quite intriguing that both the political parties invest enormous effort to pursue such minor Jewish vote. Freedman explains: “First, Jews vote at a very high rate — as high as 90% of registered voters in a presidential election, according to some estimates. Second, Jews donate to political candidates in very large amounts. Third, Jews are clustered into several of the half-dozen so-called “battleground states,” the ones that have held the balance in many elections since 1992.”
“If you can move 10% or 20% of the Jewish vote in those states to Republican from Democrat, considering how tightly contested those states are in most years and how close the overall electoral map is in most presidential years, you can win an election just by turning a portion of the Jewish vote.”
Pew’s research data shows that Jewish vote has gradually come down for Democrat candidates from above 90%. In the 2016 Presidential elections, only 71% of Jews supported the democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton – slightly more than the 69% who voted for Obama in 2012, but significantly less than the 78% who turned out for Obama in 2008, the 74% for Kerry in 2004, or the 79% for Al Gore in 2000.
Among the Orthodox Jews, the shift is much more conspicuous. A 2016 poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee found that approximately 50% of Orthodox voters favoured Trump while 21% supported Clinton.
Hence, the historical decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal” capital and moving the embassy to Jerusalem, though symbolic, is expected to bring a windfall of electoral advantage of the Jewish community to the Republican Party in general and for President Trump in particular in his re-election bid in 2020.
His “America First” policy has an overriding priority and Middle East, like other allies, must take care of themselves.