Will Jerusalem be Trump’s first foreign policy crisis?
Several US president-elects, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, pledged during their campaigns to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Once in office, however, they chose not to act — the law included a waiver allowing the president to defer action.
With the election of Donald Trump as president, the pattern may change, even though in his final news conference as president Barack Obama said moving the embassy “could be explosive”.
Most candidates for president made the Jerusalem pledge when addressing pro-Israel groups. Trump made it a central element of his Middle East foreign policy platform. Not long before Trump’s inauguration, Kellyanne Conway, one of his closest advisers, said moving the US embassy to Jerusalem was a “very big priority’” for the new administration. “He made this very clear during the campaign,” Conway said. “I’ve heard him repeat it several times privately.”
Trump’s nomination of David Friedman, his bankruptcy lawyer, to be US ambassador to Israel further signalled his willingness to move the embassy. Friedman, a major financial backer of the Israeli settler movement, issued a statement upon his nomination saying that he looked forward to serving in “the US Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem”.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who will have an office in the White House and advise the president on a host of issues, including the Middle East, is also a supporter of Israeli settler groups and the Kushner family is known to be close to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Palestinians are understandably distressed. Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and long-time Palestinian negotiator, warned that the PLO will revoke all previously signed agreements with Israel, including its 1993 recognition of the country, if the embassy is moved. “Any hope of peace in the future will just vanish,” Erekat said.
While Trump may have little concern for the feelings of Palestinians, he should be concerned about an action that may very well spark his administration’s first foreign policy crisis.
A range of views exist on how the Palestinians — and the Arab and Muslim worlds more broadly — will respond if Trump does relocate the embassy. Some analysts say the region will respond with angry rhetoric and demonstrations but not serious and sustained violence. At a closed-door conference at the Wilson Center in Washington, Erekat reportedly predicted that American embassies would be forced to close because “the infuriated public in the Arab world would not allow for the embassies to continue to operate”.
Riyad Mansour, Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, has threatened to take the matter to the UN Security Council and General Assembly, given that moving the embassy would violate UN Resolution 181 concerning the status of Jerusalem.
It is unlikely that any of these responses would have much effect on Trump. If US embassies in the Arab world were attacked or their operations encumbered by demonstrations, Trump could close them; doing so would be consistent with his isolationist foreign policy tendencies. And Trump, like many of the Republicans in Congress, has little respect for the United Nations and would not hesitate to cut the world body’s funding.
The bigger challenge for the new administration in Washington would be a violent and sustained uprising by the Palestinians. If this were to occur, one can expect the Trump administration to lend nearly full support to Israel. With such close friends in the White House, Israel would feel free to react as harshly as possible.
In fact, Israel may relish the opportunity. Netanyahu is mired in a corruption scandal and would like nothing better than to divert public attention. A former Israeli Defence Forces intelligence officer told The Arab Weekly that many extremist right-wing Israelis are itching for an excuse to seize more Palestinian land in the West Bank and drive much of the Palestinian population into Jordan.
Trump has said that he would love to be the president who brings lasting to peace to the Middle East and that his self-professed skill at making deals gives him an advantage. He should be able to see that a harsh military response by Israel to Palestinian protests would not be conducive to deal-making.
The biggest leverage over Trump, however, may come from such US allies as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Leaders of all three countries know that moving the US embassy, especially if it were followed by violent conflict in which Palestinians suffer many casualties, would serve as a tremendous boost for the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah. The unanswered questions: Would Trump listen to these leaders? And, if he does, what would he do about their concerns?