Despite worldwide objection particularly from U.S. allies, President Donald Trump went ahead and did what no other president has done in the past – declare unequivocally that the United States fully recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Hearing Trump say it sounded awkward because normally, it is the respective country that names its own capital. So why then would the United States do it especially knowing that all of the other countries with diplomatic relations with Israel structured their embassies in Tel Aviv? With the announcement, the countdown has begun to physically relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
No big deal, right? After all, Trump is only delivering a campaign promise. Wrong! First of all, as allies around the world have predicted – particularly Arab nations and Europe who are heavily invested in the outcome of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, a major upheaval has begun in Jerusalem and other Arab states. How long these protests, demonstrations, confrontations will last will depend on how patient these Arab nations, Israel, and Iran will be. They will determine what happens next in the Middle East – not the U.S.
Other than a campaign promise, there was no real value added sequelae to Trump’s move. If anything, it just made the situation in that area worst because by making the declaration, the U.S. can no longer be viewed as a neutral country brokering peace. There was only one leader jubilating with the announcement – Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and his hard right allies in Israel and the United States). To him, the announcement made Trump some kind of a saint among Orthodox Jews and they want to honor him with a pompous parade in Israel. Trump would love that.
Objectively, was this a wise move? Trump invoked Einstein’s (he probably didn’t know it) wisdom and made it his argument, that US presidents used the same approach brokering peace between these warring nations. Ergo, he cannot expect a different outcome if he were to follow a similar logic. By destabilizing the region, he is expecting a different outcome. This sounds logical but bereft of merit. Trump is referring of course to the two-state solution (both nations are granted statehood and co-exist) that his predecessors championed with mixed results. By this declaration, Trump has unwittingly endorsed a one-state solution – meaning the West Bank and Gaza (currently ruled by Israel) will either be under Israeli protection (most likely) or the realization of a Palestinian state (through war).
Trump’s blessing will pave the way for more Jewish settlements (that Netanyahu would love to pursue) in the West Bank but to further Palestinian irritation. Mahmoud Abbas and his coalition government views Israeli settlements as hindrance to pursuing peace and establishing a Palestine state free of Israelis. Clearly, Trump’s declaration will lead to further division between the two conflicting nations. Whether this result in further armed conflict will depend on how actively Iran goads its allies (Hezbollah and Hamas) in Palestine.
So, what’s the score? Jerusalem is a Holy City for Christians, Muslims, and Jews. East Jerusalem being Palestine’s capital and the birthplace of Jesus Christ (Bethlehem) now is under a cloud with Trump’s declaration. Me thinks that this is bad timing and could get worse. And here’s why. During the campaign to neutralize the Islamic State (ISIS), there was a confluence of events that allowed former enemies to fight together against ISIS – their common enemy. Jordan and some of the Arab states have warmed up to Israel during the fight with ISIS. Israel has also established closer relations with Russia along with Turkey. Iran has worked with the United States (and with Arab states) in retaking Iraq from ISIS. Now that ISIS is about to be done or in the margins, this wrinkle will bring back old tensions if they’re not already there.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are already locked in in a bitter proxy war in Yemen. Another front can open up in the West Bank and Israel itself or Syria for that matter. Iran is already moving in from Syria and Iraq. Iran’s unequivocal support of Syria’s dictator allowed it to start building a naval base in Syria near Damascus and near the Israeli border. Israeli responded a couple of weeks ago by bombing the military target. The message was clear that Israel will not tolerate Iran’s overtures that threaten Israel. Iran’s next move will depend on Russian support but Russia is now chummy with Netanyahu and would rather that Iran stands down.
Iran’s and Israel’s conflict will never go away because they are mortal enemies from biblical times. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has lasted for 150 years precisely because of this religious war. Iran does not recognize Israel’s right to exist as a state. We have to remember that it was really Iran that started this whole thing about Islamism during the ascent of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 who founded the Islamic Republic of Iran (the first Islamic State), engineered the Iranian Revolution that kicked out the Shah of Iran, and precipitated this confrontation with the West. ISIS will soon be history but another one will take its place and Iran will most likely be behind it.
Trump’s gambit is tied to the nuclear deal that the West under former president Barack Obama’s leadership entered into with Iran. Trump wants it renegotiated but his allies will not support him on this and without such support his wish to scuttle the deal will go for naught. By siding with Israel Trump is telling his allies that he could create trouble for their investments in the region particularly with Iran and that Israel will be willing to go into a proxy war with Iran to do the bidding for the U.S. Netanyahu was fully restrained by Obama before but with Trump, he will not get in the way when Netanyahu unleashes the dogs of war.
This approach, however, will unravel Arab support for Trump’s peace initiative and could lead to Saudi Arabia being armed with nuclear weapons to counter Iran. Thus a more volatile and destabilized Middle East can emerge. Africa is already at a boiling point with the destabilization of Libya spilling over to other African countries, and North Korea’s nuclear program is very much dominating the international scene and could be another tinderbox. With such U.S. pre-occupations trying to find a center in all these, the opportunity for peace in the Middle East will soon dim and be replaced by chaos. More U.S. troops in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and Asia to counter China; American peacekeeping and democracy building has just gotten complicated while trying consensus back home.
Trump’s declaration making Jerusalem Israel’s undisputed capital is ill-advised and does not serve America’s national interest in the near or long term. His myopic view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ignores the fact that Israel’s cultural make up is now tilted to the right and predominantly Orthodox Jews is running the country into confrontation with Arabs whether in Israeli territories or outside the boundaries of Israel. It also misses a developing disenchantment by American Jews to the policies of Netanyahu. American Jews in the past has thrown unequivocal support to Israel pursue peace. They believe that a peaceful solution to the conflict is in sight if only the hardliners in the Netanyahu cabinet will go away. More and more, American Jews are polarized under Trump and this could mean trouble for Trump’s agenda. Just like in anything else, Trump is really not interested in reconciling Israel and Palestine. He just wants the credit that he is the first president who recognized Israel’s capital. Besides that, the world can fall apart for all he cares but he will not be denied that recognition to add to his many, many, many beautiful accomplishments.