Trump’s Jerusalem declaration is about American politics, not peace in the Middle East

Donald Trump is not likely to shake the Palestinian Authority president’s hand again anytime soon.
Donald Trump is not likely to shake the Palestinian Authority president’s hand again anytime soon.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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At this time two years ago, Donald Trump was just one more Republican presidential candidate in a giant swimming pool of 2016 aspirants. The Iowa caucuses were a month away, a Trump presidency was still largely considered a joke by establishment political pundits monitoring the race, and the billionaire real-estate mogul himself was oftentimes out of his depth. But even then, he wanted reporters covering his candidacy to know that he would make striking a final peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians one of his overriding foreign policy objectives. “I think if I get elected, that would be something I’d really like to do,” Trump told the Associated Press in a Dec. 3, 2015 interview at his golf club in northern Virginia. “Because so much death, so much turmoil, so much hatred—that would be to me a great achievement. As a single achievement, that would be a really great achievement.”

It wasn’t the first time then-candidate Trump mentioned the Middle East peace process, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Five months later, at a time when his journey to the Republican nomination began to look almost inevitable, Trump sat down with the New York Times for an extensive telephone interview and gushed that he “would love to see if a real deal could be made.”

“You know,” he added, “a lot of people think that’s the hardest of all deals to negotiate. A lot of people think that…but I would say that I would have a better chance than anybody of making a deal.”

After his inauguration, Trump got to work and placed the Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking file in the hands of his son-in-law Jared Kushner. While many Middle East hands scoffed at the notion of a semi-successful, 36-year old real estate developer with no foreign policy experience having the acumen, tenacity and smarts to bring Israelis and Arabs together, the fact Kushner was chosen meant that Trump wanted a trusted aid and member of his family to manage it. It appeared as if a peace agreement was that important.

Indeed, when Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas met Trump face-to-face at the White House for the very first time, the 82-year old former deputy to Yasser Arafat practically drank the Trump Kool-Aid. “Mr. president, I believe that we are capable under your leadership and your…courageous stewardship and your wisdom, as well as your great negotiating ability…to bring about a historic peace treaty…”  

With Trump’s decision today to recognize the Holy City of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the months of goodwill that the administration built up with their Palestinian counterparts is now squandered. Whatever slim opportunity existed for “the ultimate deal” just closed for the foreseeable future, and perhaps for the rest of the president’s first term. Now that the move is underway, there won’t be pats on the back, handshakes, or smiles between Trump and Abbas anytime soon.  

With the exception of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many Israeli politicians in the Knesset, literally nobody in the region thinks that a formal US recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital is a good idea. Not the Europeans. Not the Arabs. Not the Palestinians. Not the United Nations. And, if NBC News is to be believed not even secretary of State Rex Tillerson or Defense secretary Jim Mattis. Such an intense volley of statements has been released over the previous three days that it’s very difficult to figure out why the White House believes that wading into the choppy waters of Jerusalem would assist their pursuit towards the launching of a comprehensive round of Mideast diplomacy. French president Emmanuel Macron called Trump this week to express “his concern,” while German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel publicly commented that “It’s in everyone’s interest that this [an embassy relocation] does not happen.”

Frederica Mogherini, the European Union’s High Commissioner for Foreign Policy, told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to his face in Brussels yesterday that “any action that would undermine these [peace] efforts must absolutely be avoided.” The Saudis  the Jordanians. the Egyptians, the Turks, the Arab League, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation…it’s difficult to find one leader, minister, or parliamentarian in the Muslim world who isn’t warning the White House that a change in Jerusalem’s status-quo will create violence. 

To Israelis and Jews in the United States, Europe, and indeed around the world, the status of Jerusalem is an immensely symbolic and emotional issue. To Israelis, Jerusalem is already the capital of Israel; Netanyahu’s offices are there, the Knesset is seated there, and the bureaucrats in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Interior report there for work. If the Palestinian Authority and the Arab world at large was being honest with themselves, they too would admit that Israeli sovereignty over at least West Jerusalem is a non-negotiable item in a final status resolution. There has been a working assumption among American, European and even Arab peace negotiators that Jerusalem will be Israel’s capital city when the document is signed. Since at least 1995, it has been the official policy of the United States Congress that “Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel,” and that the US State Department should move operations there.

The problem, as even the most casual observer of Mideast politics will tell you, is that the Palestinians also have an intense spiritual, religious, historical, and symbolic connection with the city. Just as Washington has assumed that West Jerusalem will be given to Israel in a final deal, there is a widespread assumption that East Jerusalem will be the capital of a future Palestinian state. Where the exact municipal boundaries will be drawn is a matter for both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to figure out, but a two-state solution will entail some shared status over the Holy City. It’s a pragmatic solution to a highly combustible problem: if neither side can have the entire city, Jerusalem will have to be shared and Israeli and Palestinian politicians will have to find a way to make it work.

Given the potential violence that could erupt in the West Bank, Gaza, inside Israel itself, and across the Muslim world—not to mention the major setback to the peace process that such a decision would likely produce—one has to wonder why Trump is making such an announcement at this specific time? Why now?

The only answer I could come up: domestic politics. 

A unilateral American declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city would be an incredible boost to Trump’s popularity with the evangelical community in the United States and a celebratory development for his base supporters, a jolt of adrenaline that the White House may hope bleeds into the Republican party in time for the midterm elections next year.

Then there is the Sheldon Adelson factor, the biggest donor in the Republican party today (he and his wife have spent over $176 million on conservative causes, GOP candidates, and Republican Super PAC’s over the last three election cycles), who was reportedly upset that the Trump administration delayed relocating the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem when the White House had to make a determination back in the spring. The casino titan is a financial force to be reckoned with and a man that Republicans have to keep happy if they hope for the checks to arrive in the mail. And you can’t give Adelson a gift that is more meaningful to him than making an undivided, Israeli-controlled Jerusalem official US policy.

But the more significant driver towards the decision is Trump’s own ego: he cannot stand making promises on the campaign trail and failing to fulfill them.

During one of the biggest foreign policy speeches of his candidacy, Trump promised the audience at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that he would do what no American president—Republican or Democrat—has done before: move the embassy to Jerusalem, “the eternal capital of the Jewish people.” It was a loud, emotionally satisfying pledge to thousands of people who he was trying to win over at the time. Once Trump delivered his line on Jerusalem, the crowd gave him a loud standing ovation. For a man who loves to be loved by everyone, that was surely an experience that has stuck in his brain ever since. To sign yet another waiver and keep the US Embassy in Tel Aviv without something big and bold to make up for it, Trump risks being killed by the pro-Israel community and his right-wing, populist base as yet another politician who says one thing on the campaign trail and does something different in the Oval Office.

Hopefully for the president, the dice he chose to roll wins him a big political payout. Because it definitely won’t help his son-in-law try to shock the Israeli-Palestinian peace process out of a coma.