Trump’s Jerusalem move adds to uncertainties, further sidelines US

Trump’s main motive relates to domestic policy, with the president trying to honour campaign pledges important to his Christian-conservative and pro-Israel supporters.
December 10, 2017
Trump signs proclamation officially recognising Jerusalem as capital of Israel as Vice President Pence looks on

Washington - US President Donald Trump’s move to boost Israel’s claim over Jeru­salem adds to a grow­ing sense of unpredict­ability in US Middle East policy and could accelerate the decline of America’s influence in the region, analysts said.

Concrete changes are not expect­ed soon because implementation of Trump’s December 6 announce­ment to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem will take years. The US president made that clear by signing a 6-month waiver for the embassy move immediate­ly after his televised statement in which he officially recognised Je­rusalem as the capital of Israel and said the United States would relo­cate the Tel Aviv mission.

The most serious consequences will be felt elsewhere, analysts said. “The real loser may be the United States and its role as a Middle East mediator,” said Perry Cammack, a fellow in the Middle East Pro­gramme of the Carnegie Endow­ment for International Peace and a former official on the policy plan­ning staff of US Secretary of State John Kerry.

“Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian ini­tiative frankly never had a chance,” Cammack said via e-mail, refer­ring to the Middle East initiative led by Trump’s adviser and son-in law Jared Kushner, “but the last­ing impact is the further deteriora­tion of America’s relations with its European allies and Middle Eastern partners and its ability to impact political dynamics in the region.”

Trump’s speech came as Rus­sia has an increasingly high profile in the Middle East. Moscow has emerged as the driving force of ef­forts to end the Syrian war and recently concluded a preliminary agreement with Egypt over the use of its airbases by Russian fighter jets. Russian President Vladimir Putin is to visit regional US allies Turkey and Egypt on December 11.

Observers said the main motive for Trump to act on Jerusalem re­lates to domestic policy, with the president trying to honour cam­paign pledges important to his Christian-conservative and pro- Israel supporters. The New York Times reported that Sheldon Adel­son, a pro-Israel casino owner who supported the Trump campaign with $25 million, was angry when the president failed to declare Jeru­salem the capital of Israel earlier in the year.

Trump stressed on December 6 that he saw his initiative at least partially as a fulfilment of promises made before the last year’s election. “While previous presidents have made this a major campaign prom­ise, they failed to deliver,” Trump said. “Today, I am delivering.”

Selim Sazak, a Washington-based fellow of the Delma Institute, a think-tank in Abu Dhabi, said the move shows that Trump, under pressure by an investigation into suspected links between his cam­paign team and Russia, is primarily concerned with his own political situation. “Donald Trump is trying to keep control of the conservative- Jewish donor class,” Sazak said.

Unpredictability has been a hall­mark of the Trump administration’s forays into Middle East matters since he took office last January. While US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to mediate the con­flict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Trump openly sided with Riyadh, undercutting Tillerson’s efforts. Tillerson and Defence Sec­retary James Mattis warned against tearing up the international nuclear agreement with Iran but the presi­dent presented conditions in Oc­tober aimed at exactly that. Media reports said Trump ignored advice from Tillerson and Mattis in the run-up to the Jerusalem decision.

The new initiative has thrown a key US project to forge a broad al­liance of Middle East countries against Iran into disarray, Sazak said. “Nothing would undermine that alliance more than the Jerusa­lem decision did,” he said.

US allies such as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz (sometimes referred to as “MBS”) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi would find it hard to argue for Trump’s plan con­vincingly in their own countries. “How can MBS or Sisi sell this?” Sazak asked.

Confusion about what the Trump administration is trying to achieve is heightened by his blunt approach to the role of Jerusalem’s future in a potential Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. While former US presidents avoided statements on the city’s status, Trump threw away an im­portant bargaining chip, Cammack wrote. “Trump’s recognition of Je­rusalem as the capital of Israel was diplomatic malpractice,” he said. “The great negotiator just gave away a critical symbolic gesture without getting anything in return.”

A lack of precision in Trump’s declaration appears to be another problem. “While it is clear that the US believes that the final bounda­ries of Jerusalem are to be negotiat­ed in a peace agreement, it is not at all clear what part of Jerusalem the US recognises as sovereign Israeli territory today,” Ofer Zalzberg and Nathan Thrall, senior analysts for Israel/Palestine at the International Crisis Group, wrote in an analysis.

Some observers said the many unanswered questions after a ma­jor policy announcement by a US president point to a lack of prepa­ration. “I am pretty sure there is no strategy,” Sazak said, adding he ex­pected more unpredictability from Trump. “US policy is becoming in­calculable.”