Terry H. Schwadron
Dec. 7, 2017
OK, I get it, President Trump was paying fealty to a campaign promise.
But that doesn’t mean that recognizing Jerusalem as the official Israeli capital and site of a new American embassy was a good idea as a campaign promise, or worse, as current policy declaration. He’s made other campaign promises that are less than appropriate. Does being in the office not present information that might ameliorate extreme positions taken during the campaign?
In fact, as world reaction shows clearly, it is almost impossible to come up with a reasonable, even unreasonable argument to do so right now, just as the president says son-in-law and Trump jack of all trades Jared Kushner is said to be working on aligning the various disparate voices in the Middle East to try peace plans on for size once again. If nothing else, why now? Why not after the administration unveils whatever plan it is conjuring to bring peace to the region? Why step on Kusher and company right now?
Even as pure domestic politics, this move makes little sense. It has been widely reported and trumpeted from the White House itself that this is a move to feed the already existing bloc of support for the president from evangelical Christians and from a small segment of U.S. Jewish orthodoxy that sees land ownership as more important than how to live, or getting along with neighbors, or simply recognizing that living with those who do not agree might require some compromise. Those folks include Sheldon Adelson, for example, a Jewish casino owner, huge contributor to the Trump campaign, and support of Jewish settlement of Palestinian lands (who was reportedly in the Oval Office as Trump called Jewish leaders and donors).
It’s not even clear that Israelis themselves welcome this move.
The point is, Trump already has these folks as supporters. What does he gain here, to say nothing of what do we all gain? Surprisingly to me, Trump drew immediate bipartisan praise from Congress. What do they stand to gain here? Once again, he has snubbed 70 years of history, overturned policies of predecessors and declared himself more important than history.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been positive but generally quiet, though I’m sure he favors the move to retain his slim governing coalition with the religious right and to distract from his own domestic problems. Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, editorialized, “Instead of unilateral declarations favoring one side, the goal must be West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state,” in raising questions about Trump’s move.
But the news media, among others, is raising open questions about timing, intent and the inevitability of violent response by spurned Arabs.
So, one is left wondering, what’s going on? What is the America First reasoning going on here? Is this just one more provocation against majority Muslim interests?
Among other things, the move puts at risk the role that the United States has said it wants to retain, as a fair broker. Clearly, this move emphatically puts the United States on Israel’s side. How the United States can proceed towards peace talks is difficult to understand.
More directly, this move may will bring forth another infatada, and the U.S. role will be to try to talk Israel down from a most militant response.
The president’s words (in a room surrounded by Christmas pine decoration) do not help much to explain: “Today we finally acknowledge the obvious: That Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do. It’s something that has to be done.”
That speaks to resolve, not reasoning.
“This decision is not intended in any way to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement. We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians,” the president said. “The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides.”
And yet, the Arab world, diverse as it is, seems united in condemning the move, and indicating that a two-state peace agreement is all but dashed without leaving the status of Jerusalem to the negotiating table.
Losing support for American positions could prompt unrelated reaction, including pushing Turkey, which opposed the declaration, further away from American interests and more towards Russian influence. Likewise, losing support among the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians and others only spell more opportunity for Iran in the region.
Europe said no, China and Russia expressed concern, and so did the Pope. But Trump pushed ahead anyway, supported by Vice President Mike Pence, who firmly argued on behalf of many evangelicals. Pence plans a trip to the region soon.
At the heart of the controversy is Jerusalem’s contested status between Israel and Palestinians. Both lay claim to the ancient city as their capital. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip. Past U.S. administrations have resisted taking a side on the status of Jerusalem, trying instead to keep avenues for peace dialogues open. Palestinians would almost certainly seek recognition of East Jerusalem as its capital in any two-state solution.
Of course, Trump, who never deals with details, skipped over the niceties of defining what constitutes “Jerusalem.” It is still possible, for example, for the parties to define a West Jerusalem and an East Jerusalem.
Hamas declared a day of rage on Friday. The U.S. consulate in Jerusalem issued a security warning barring government employees and their families from personal travel in Jerusalem’s Old City or the West Bank, including Bethlehem and Jericho.
At present, 86 countries have embassies in Tel Aviv, none in Jerusalem.
This is a move that is strictly about cozying up to a segment of domestic politics, not one that will make the world — or the United States — safer, more prosperous, more morally correct or that will help position America to help others.
What’s the upside?