Why in the world is Donald Trump undoing decades of US policy on Jerusalem?

Published: December 8, 2017
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A mural resembling the work of elusive artist Banksy depicting President Donald Trump wearing a Jewish skullcap, is seen on Israel's West Bank separation barrier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. PHOTO: AP

It is almost impossible to see the logic behind Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and possibly moving the US embassy to Israel there – before it even unveils what’s certain to be a controversial plan for Middle East peace, which will be tough enough to sell.

The White House is probably betting that, despite the noises in the Arab world against such a move, their key allies in Saudi Arabia and Egypt will limit their opposition – already publicly voiced – to lip service, as they are all interested in protecting relations with Trump over more urgent issues, such as fighting militancy and confronting Iran. It’s also betting that the Arab and Muslim public outcry will be limited, both because of efforts by their governments to contain dissent, and because administration officials may have swallowed the arguments that Arabs no longer care about Palestine, or even Jerusalem.

All of this is doubtful, but let’s consider for a moment the possibility that the administration’s assessment that costs will be limited is accurate. No one, not even President Trump, is arguing that such a move would be helpful to US-Middle East policy. This begs the question: Why is Trump doing this?

Trump certainly doesn’t need to solidify his pro-Israel credentials; three of his key Middle East advisers are known to be sympathetic with the Israeli right. More importantly, the American public, including his Republican core, already thinks his policy is pro-Israel. A University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll (among a national sample of 2,000 American adults, fielded by Nielsen Scarborough November 1st to 6th and released at the Brookings Institution last Friday) found that 59% of Americans said they preferred that Trump lean toward neither side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In contrast, 57% of Americans, including most Republicans, said he is in fact leaning toward Israel. Our poll also shows that 63% of all Americans oppose moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, including 44% of Republicans.

How about the Evangelical Christians whose support has been critical for Trump and who are known to support declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there? Two-thirds of Evangelicals say Trump’s policy is already leaning toward Israel – a proportion that’s even higher than that of the rest of the population. Even on moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, the support is hardly overwhelming – while 53% of Evangelicals support the move, 40% oppose it.

Evangelical leaders undoubtedly bring this issue up with the president, but none will abandon him for not making the declaration. Trump has been the president who has arguably given the Evangelical right more than any other president in history has – from favourable key appointments such as Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, to highly favourable policies toward religious schools.

In the meantime, the administration’s assumptions about the limited costs of the move are based on little more than a leap of faith. In fact, the move would go against the very priorities that the administration has set for itself in the Middle East – fighting Islamist militancy and confronting Iranian influence. Jerusalem is the perfect issue for Iran and Islamist militants to use to mobilise support against the United States and those who endorse its policies.

Publicity over likely limited Arab voices, such as the Twitter hashtag, #RiyadhIsMoreImportantThanAlQuds, may have played a role in the assessment – in addition to re-enforcing Israeli government statements. But this is not new. In the lead-up to the Camp David negotiations that President Bill Clinton mediated in 2000, it was not hard to see that the White House underestimated the centrality of Jerusalem to the Palestinians and Arabs broadly and that this issue could bring the negotiations down. It did.

Sure, the Middle East is more divided today than it was then. Many Arabs are focused on their immediate tragedies; others may have a diminished connection to Palestine, or even to Jerusalem. But as the region has grown deeply divided, Jerusalem has remained a central symbol that transcends the divide. It remains a mobilising issue even in a polarised environment – even if Arabs don’t go out into the streets in consequential numbers, a declaration will play into the hands of those plotting in the basement.

It’s also good to recall what happened just a few months ago, as the same assumptions about the irrelevance of Palestine and Jerusalem prevailed. Following the killings of Israeli policemen, an Israeli government attempt to install security machines to search Palestinian worshippers at al-Aqsa Mosque generated Palestinian demonstrations that quickly mobilised Arab and Muslim public opinion, and led to intervention by governments – ultimately forcing a reversal of the measures.

There is of course a direct impact on Jordan, whose stability is essential; King Abdullah, an American ally, has been among the first to make clear in his warnings about the impact of the move on his society. Since then, many have added their warnings including Turkish and French leaders, among others. Then, there is the direct impact on the Palestinians. The move could force Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to walk away, at least initially, from talks. But even if Trump could get Abbas to swallow the move, the leverage Abbas would expend to keep any degree of legitimacy among Palestinians will inevitably come at the expense of his ability to convince the Palestinians to swallow any deal Trump will offer – a nearly impossible task in the first place.

So, again, why in the world is Trump doing this?

From the outset, most experts understood that the “deal of the century” was most likely beyond reach and that its collapse may lead to President Trump lashing out with such moves as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and giving the green light to expand Israeli settlement in the West Bank. The fact that the White House may take a controversial step on Jerusalem now, before Trump even has a chance to unveil his plan, means one of two things.

The first is that his advisers live in their own bubble, reinforced by unprecedented inexperience. In fact, this is already a public fear. Despite deep partisanship on almost every issue, Americans come together on this issue – 81% of all Americans, including 71% of Republicans, prefer Trump relying on experts in his Middle East diplomacy, not on inexperienced family members and personal lawyers.

But there is a second possibility, that the Trump administration has already given up on its “deal of the century” and is looking for ways to pin the blame on someone else.

This post originally appeared here.

Shibley Telhami

Shibley Telhami

The author is a non-resident senior fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, as well as the Center for Middle East Policy, and the Foreign Policy program at Brookings. He tweets @ShibleyTelhami (twitter.com/ShibleyTelhami)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Parvez

    I think the answer lies in the nature of the man……he wants to rock the boat and see what happens and he is relying on the fact that the Muslim world is fragmented and incapable of an effective collective response……so let us see if he’s right.Recommend

  • NKAli

    President Trump inhabits the pocket of Dajjal. It has been foretold and it is unfolding. We Muslims have to pull up our socks and start marching FORWARD.
    Somewhere in the line of Middle Eastern countries is a rat and the rat is not hard to locate. without the implied/implicit nod of approval of Saudia, Trump would not have gone ahead and dared to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
    US$ 380 billion for arms is a lot of money for the Americans and they would have even kissed the shoes of the Saudi citizens. Moreover, Saudia is collaborating with Israel against Iran. Why? What for…to rule the Middle East???
    The son of King Salman of Saudia who calls the shots nowadays has made a big mistake. SalamsRecommend

  • Omar

    The answer is plain and simple: Trump has secured the rights to build the 3rd temple, in exchange of his decision in regards to Jerusalem. All this would not have been possible without the help of Abu Sufiyan’s family, which is ruling the Saudi lands these days.Recommend

  • Eddied

    Trump is giving the Muslim world a wake up call…no more living in denial that Israel is a soverign country?…Israel has existed as long as Pakistan…70 years have past and some still say they are just occupying Palestinian territory?…wake up…Israel is a separate country recognized by the UN that is here to stay…Time to face reality…Recommend

  • I am a Khan

    Trump’s son in Law Jared Kushner is an orthodox Jew and comes from an influential and wealthy jewish family. Trump’s Daughter Ivanka (Jared’s wife) became (converted) an orthodox Jew after marrying Jared. Trump gave the job of settling the Israel Palestine Conflict to his Son in law who is an orthodox jew and openly on Israel’s side. Its clear that Trump is a pawn of the jewish lobby in USA and they are making full use of him.Recommend

  • KlingOn2K

    Sometimes good things come from the most unlikeliest of situations. Maybe this is the nudge that was needed for both sides to make some compromises. For nearly 70 years, there has been no sign of peace. Let’s hope this shocks the region into fixing this problem.Recommend

  • Powayman

    One thing for sure – the status quo hasn’t been working – there has been no substantive progress towards resolution of Israeli/Palestinian dispute for almost two decades. Calling Palestine a State maybe politically correct but pure rubbish – the Palestinians have never shown the ability to govern themselves (Hamas/Fatah dispute) and they lack the means of providing water/sewer/electricity and other basics that every state takes for granted.Recommend

  • Abdul Jabbar

    Read the Israeli-Jewish historian Ilan Pappe’s book “Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” to understand that the extremist Zionists had planned from day one to take over the entire Palestine. Israel’s first head of state David Ben Gurion said that 53% of Palestine that the UN gave the Jewish state was just the down payment. As for recognizing Israel as a sovereign state, Israel is the only country in the world that has not declared its borders. So which borders do you want the world to recognize — what the UN gave Israel in 1947, or what Israel expanded to until 1967, or the now 100 % occupied Palestine? You talk about the UN recognition of Israel. For your information, the UN does NOT recognize Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (Gaza is free only in the name because it is under Israel’s illegal siege by air, land, and sea). Read the UN Security Resolution 242 and many similar resolutions for facts. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said a few weeks ago that Palestinians are asking for only 22% of their historic land, letting Israel keep the remaining 78%. Even that small part is being denied to them by Israel. Is that just? What the Palestinians are being subjected to is nothing less that a holocaust in slow motion and those who are supporting Israel in this ethnic cleansing need to re-think their position.Recommend

  • Abdul Jabbar

    To provide the basic amenities of life, such as those that you mention, is the duty of the occupying power, in this case Israel. How can a people under occupation provide those facilities? After Israel pulled out of Gaza, the Palestinians there had built a functioning infrastructure that Israel completely destroyed, including their schools, hospitals, water/sewer, and electrical systems when Israel attacked Gaza (in 2014, I believe). For more, please read my response to Eddied above.Recommend

  • KlingOn2K

    Fairy tales have their place but when you also have to occasionally use your rational mind. The Islamic world is in shambles and Muslims only have themselves to blame. They have little education and do not have a niche in the modern world. Oil is the one that masked these failings for all these years. Now that alternate energy sources are making their presence felt, the fissures are beginning to show. King Salman may be the King Solomon born again. He is the only hope.Recommend

  • numbersnumbers

    All should look up “Jerusalem Embassy Act” on Wikipedia for background!Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    t is almost impossible to see the logic behind Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and possibly moving the US embassy to Israel there

    There is no logic but the belief of an evangelist christians in the USA whom Donald represents, to protect the god choosen people from the arabs who beleve in the God called Allah. Donald belives that all previous Presidents were coward and behaved as neutrals simply to appease and deceive the Islamic Nations. He also claims to have the support of the House of Saud and Hashimite kingdom hough differences in the timing of the announcement.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • C Gupta

    Trump wants to divert attention from his impending impeachment.
    Get radical things done before they come after him with a net.
    Next would be legalization of Ku Klux Klan and The Aryan Nation.Recommend

  • KlingOn2K

    Tell me, when was Palestine EVER a nation?!
    Which history book says they were? Just because you can multiply like rabbits doesn’t mean you deserve one.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Still sitting on the fence on Big Yellow?
    His son in law wanted him to recognize Jerusalem. Maybe the Netanyahu
    will now pay off Jared Kushner’s millions he owes in real estate loans in
    Manhattan. About to default on them too. Since ‘help from the Russians deal’
    fell through. No Russian oligarch is paying off Jared’s loans,…now.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    Fairy tales Sir have their own place in history There is no rationale for the Americans to elect a moron President nor for the Saudi monarch to take the role of a butler and confront the rise of Iranian influence in the middle east, the fight between the right and wrong is the destiny of humans. It matters not who the winners or the loosers are as long as the endurance of the resistance remains intact. Jerusalem is being prepared for destruction not for th first time. Th devil has more ntellignc than that of the human, a quote of todays Pope.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • ab

    What right did Britain had to grant somebody else country to somebody else!Recommend

  • Eddied

    what makes you think you have any right to change 70 year old history?Recommend

  • ab

    What make you think that i changed the real history?Recommend