US president’s foray a case of pure domestic politics
US President Donald Trump’s speech recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his decision to take steps to move the US Embassy there represent a major break from longstanding US policy. Defying the position of friends and allies in Europe and the Arab world, as well as members of his own cabinet, Trump wanted to signal to his political base that, unlike past US presidents, he honours his campaign pledges.
The puzzlement is that the people to whom such a policy would appeal — evangelical Christians and more hawkish members of the American Jewish community — were not clamouring for recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Granted, Trump did say to loud applause at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in March 2016 that he would move the embassy if elected president but there was no big push now by AIPAC supporters for him to do so. People who follow Middle East events closely, including AIPAC activists, were waiting for the unveiling of Trump’s plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that had been worked on by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and others over many months.
So why did Trump take this position on Jerusalem now? Under fire over the Russia investigation and other issues, including his support for a tax bill that many working-class Americans who voted for him see as benefiting the rich, Trump may have wanted to shore up his political base. By appealing to the evangelicals’ unabashed support for Israel, he can show this constituency that he stands with them on so-called cultural issues to deflect concerns about his economic policies.
Trump also likely wanted to show his base that he remains the anti-Obama. Hatred of former President Barack Obama is so intense among his base that Trump apparently believes he can score points by pointing out differences he has with his predecessor. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is one such issue, as Obama was very critical of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his settlement policies in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Trump may also have wanted to influence voters in Alabama towards the controversial Republican candidate Roy Moore in a special election for a US Senate seat. Because of allegations that Moore molested teenage girls, evangelical support for him had slipped. Hence Trump, by not only supporting Moore but by espousing a position on an issue that evangelicals care about, might energise enough voters to put Moore over the top and keep that Senate seat in Republican hands. Former White House aide Stephen Bannon underscored Trump’s position on Jerusalem to a pro-Moore crowd in Alabama on December 5 when news leaked that Trump was going to make the Jerusalem decision.
What about the negative effects such an announcement might have on the peace process and US strategic ties with Arab and Muslim countries? CNN reported that Trump’s position on Jerusalem was opposed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defence James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo but Trump overruled their advice.
Staunch Trump defenders, such as US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, pointed out that he stated that his position did not preclude Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the final status of Jerusalem nor of borders between Israel and a possible future Palestinian state. While true, this nuance is lost among millions of people in the Middle East because they focused on Trump’s deference to Israel on the Jerusalem issue.
Middle East analysts understand that, if a final peace deal were reached between Israel and the Palestinians, which would have to include Jerusalem, most countries would recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital with the Palestinians having some jurisdiction or custodianship over parts of East Jerusalem. But why rock the boat now on an issue so sensitive before a peace process even gets off the ground?
Either Trump has convinced himself that he can manage the issue despite intense anger from Arabs and Muslims or he simply does not understand the consequences of his actions. One anonymous Trump confidant told the Washington Post that Trump “doesn’t realise what all he could trigger by doing this.”
Or perhaps Trump is under the illusion that because the Saudis and other Sunni Muslim Arabs share with Israel an antipathy towards Iran, they might support something very favourable to Israel. However, with even the Saudis, with whom Trump and Kushner have cultivated close relations, sharply critical of the Jerusalem decision, Trump should have recalibrated.
Trump’s “America First” position has come to mean catering to his political base first and the rest of the world be damned.