Trump and Jerusalem

Why the worst president in American history went against all his predecessors, and the rest of the world

Donald Trump’s announcement that the US was recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was a shock, but like so many of this volatile president’s decisions, it should not have come as a surprise. As he pointed out in his statement at the White House, he had promised to do so during his election campaign.

Trump was also correct in adding that many of his predecessors had made the same promise while seeking office, but ignored it afterwards, despite overwhelming support in both houses of Congress. All of the principal bodies of the Israeli government were in Jerusalem, he said, and for decades visiting US presidents, officials and military leaders had met their Israeli counterparts there. To this president, it was simply acknowledging “the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital”, and the US embassy would move there.

At a stroke, Trump swept away nearly 70 years of careful American positioning on the status of Jerusalem, arguing that it had not achieved the desired aim of promoting peace between Israelis, who claim the whole of the city, and Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as their capital. He called his declaration “a long-overdue step to advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agreement”. But the response quickly showed why previous US presidents had held back.

As Palestinian leaders made clear, even if America had consistently favoured Israel in the past, formally coming down on the Israeli side destroyed any chance that the US could be seen as an honest broker in peace talks. The Palestinian president, Mohammed Abbas, said the country was “unacceptable” as a mediator, and called for the United Nations to take over.

There was predictable anger on the street, and across the Arab and Muslim world. Israeli troops shot four Palestinians dead in demonstrations, while the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatened to break off relations with Israel. Barnett Rubin, a former senior State Department adviser, said the Trump declaration “confirms the narrative that the US is at war with Islam and has no respect for Muslim and Arab perspectives”. Meeting in Istanbul, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, which represents 57 Muslim countries, declared Trump’s decision “null and void”, and called on the world to recognise the Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Jerusalem seen from the Mount of Olives. The Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holiest shrines, is in the foreground

Critics said Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whom he had put in charge of Middle East peace negotiations despite no obvious qualifications for the task, seemed to regard the peace process as a real-estate transaction, shorn of historical, religious or political implications. But why, they asked, did a president who regards himself as a great dealmaker give Israel such a prize without demanding anything in return? He could have appeared even-handed by recognising Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital as well; he could have clarified that the US embassy would move to West Jerusalem, keeping open the possibility of one day opening an embassy to the Palestinian state in the east of the city.

The answer, almost certainly, is that once again Trump was shaping foreign policy to appeal to his voting base – specifically, what the respected Pew Research Centre classifies as white self-described “born again/evangelical Christians”. This deeply right-wing group, a quarter of the electorate according to Pew, voted four to one in favour of Trump, overcoming any misgivings about supporting a thrice-married wheeler-dealer not only accused of molesting women, but caught on tape boasting about it.

Most evangelicals consider that Jews have a “Biblical right” to the land of Israel, and a significant proportion believe in “the rapture”, when true believers will be raised to heaven while the rest of humanity undergoes the terror and chaos of the “End of Days”. For this to happen, according to their doctrine, Jerusalem must be restored to the Jews. The historian Diana Butler Bass commented: “Of all the possible theological dog-whistles to his evangelical base, this is the biggest. Trump is reminding them that he is carrying out God’s will to these Last Days.”

Note of caution: Rex Tillerson

Trump said the State Department would immediately begin the process of hiring architects, engineers, and planners to construct a new embassy that would be “a magnificent tribute to peace”. But, as has happened before with the president’s dramatic pronouncements, reality began to intervene. Later the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said “logistical reasons” meant the embassy would not move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem until at least 2020, when this presidential term will be coming to an end, and American government maps would not show Jerusalem as being inside Israel.

Were the more rational elements of the Trump administration seeking to curb the damage caused by the abrupt change in US policy? Possibly, but it cast further doubt on Washington’s influence in the world under this president, whose “America First” outlook often ends up as “America alone”. Just as with the trans-Pacific trade pact and the international climate change treaty, other nations simply decided to carry on without the US after Trump went his own way. The European Union and Pope Francis were among many who emphasised that their view on the status of Jerusalem remained unchanged.

It is true that the long stalemate in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians has produced a certain weariness. The initial upsurge of protest in Gaza and the West Bank against Trump’s announcement subsided, and there was reason to question whether Arab and Muslim states pay much more than lip service these days to the Palestinian cause.

Trump, with his leanings towards authoritarians, has forged close relations with leaders of two of the Arab world’s most influential states, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and the effective ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Palestinians are a low priority for the Saudis in particular. Riyadh is more focused on contesting Iran’s growing power, bringing it closer to Israel, which calls Iran the greatest danger to its existence.

Trump could encourage this co-operation between Israel and two of its ostensibly hostile Arab neighbours by carrying out his threat to quit the six-power deal with Iran which limits its nuclear development. This would again put him at odds with some of America’s closest allies, Britain, France and Germany, and further provoke Tehran, which is already vying with Islamic State and other militant groups to claim that it alone is prepared to stand up for the Palestinians.

Once again, however, the other five powers have made it clear that they would not abandon the nuclear pact if the US does so. It would be seen as another heedless intervention in the world’s most tangled and dangerous region by a man who does not realise when he is out of his depth.