President Donald J. Trump’s move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and initiate the process of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city was based on the assessment that he was not risking much. The mostly rhetorical responses from Arab/Muslim states make it apparent that this bet paid off. The issue of Jerusalem bears a similarity to the issue of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims: it is a tragedy that triggers an emotional response from Muslims everywhere, but their governments lack the intent and/or capability to do much beyond offer lip service.
Trump’s Critics are Off the Mark
Critics have argued that by taking this unilateral step, the Trump administration has compromised several important diplomatic advantages in exchange for some domestic gains. Here are some of the more salient criticisms from both at home and abroad:
By recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, President Trump has given away an important leverage and in exchange received nothing from Israel. His American critics say he could have at least extracted a promise that Israel would stop constructing settlements in Palestinian territories. Others argue that this card could have been best used during final status talks.
Critics in the Middle East argue that Trump has destroyed America’s neutrality and status as an honest broker in the peace process. From their perspective, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has probably gutted any prospects that this administration would be able to jump-start the long stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Many, especially in Europe, fear that this move will trigger violence in the region and incite more anti-Western sentiment and terrorist attacks. It will aggravate the already precarious situation of many Middle Eastern countries and essentially make many Arab regimes more fragile while further destabilizing the region.
Those who focus on domestic politics argue that because Trump’s support among Republicans and Evangelicals is declining (from 78 percent to 61 percent), he made this decision to shore up his base. This is not about peace in the Middle East; it is about making peace with an increasingly restless base.
I am in partial agreement with the critics who argue that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital could undermine Washington’s ability to influence Israel and push it toward a peaceful two-state solution. But I disagree that this was done merely to shore up support for President Trump among his base. Realistically, he does not need that support until November 2018 (if not November 2020). He could have used the Jerusalem card then to cash in at the polls.
I am also not convinced that this move undermines America’s status as a credible broker. Frankly, few believe that the United States was ever an honest broker in the peace process, yet they sought U.S. involvement in the matter. Besides, when it comes to mediating between the Israelis and Palestinians, there is no substitute for Washington, and the Jerusalem declaration does not change that.
As for the argument that Trump’s declaration will spur anti-Western sentiment and violence, I see no evidence for this. Both al-Qaeda and ISIS have talked about Jerusalem, but they have done nothing concrete to show that they really care about it. Besides, jihadist violence exists independent of the fate of Jerusalem. Some experts argue that this could trigger a new Intifada. With Hamas seeking to reconcile with Fatah, it will not risk launching a new Intifada to make the lives of Gazans more miserable.
And remember, so far nothing concrete has happened; President Trump has said a few words, and he is in the habit of saying much and doing little.
Creating Problems in the Arab World
It is not clear what Trump’s declaration, which goes against longstanding American policy and international consensus, seeks to achieve. It is also not clear what, if any, tangible advantages it brings to the United States in the region. On the contrary, it engenders several negatives:
It weakens public support for key U.S. allies in the region, namely Saudi Arabia and Egypt. These countries are in a difficult position where either they take punitive actions against United States and Israel (which they cannot) or appear as though they have thrown the Palestinians under the bus (which they have) and surrendered Jerusalem.
This move also gives Turkey, Iran and Qatar another common cause. I fear that this emerging partnership may sow the seeds for an enduring cold war between the two emerging poles in the Middle East: Turkey, Iran and Qatar versus Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Additionally, Turkey and Iran both seek to gain credibility by portraying themselves as the nations fighting for Jerusalem and their adversaries as surrendering Islam’s third holiest city.
The Trump administration is correct in surmising that there is fatigue in the Muslim world regarding the Palestinian struggle. The lukewarm response from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s emergency meeting in Istanbul — which many key regional players like the Saudi king and Egyptian president did not attend — gives further proof of the incoherence of the Muslim world.
This kind of incoherence is not in Washington’s interest. It means that the United States has to do more in a region which it struggles to manage. If Muslim nations were stronger in both capacity and legitimacy, they would be able institute reforms at home more easily. They would also be able to effectively fight extremism and terrorism, which is a core American national security interest. But if Muslim nations become weaker, the United States has to intervene, risking both blood and treasure.
Salvaging U.S. Policy on the Arab-Israeli Issue
Most critics fear that this declaration has destroyed the U.S.-led peace process. However, all is not lost if the United States can move forward more decisively. The Trump administration can use the current situation to push ahead with negotiations that have been stalled for several years.
By recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump has done for Israel what many previous presidents promised but did not deliver. Though he has used a valuable bargaining chip, his unprecedented action could empower him to demand that Israel restart talks with the Palestinians. By fulfilling previous presidents’ promises, Trump has put himself in a better position than his predecessors to press Israel on negotiating with the Palestinians, and he must not squander this opportunity.
Likewise, the Palestinians must take stock of the situation: Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are more interested in an alliance with Israel than supporting their cause. Even as the OIC’s emergency session was occurring in response to President Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, a delegation from Bahrain was visiting Israel to advance peace. The window of opportunity for creating an independent Palestinian state is fast closing. If the Palestinians fail to seize the moment, they could find themselves — rather than Israel — isolated from the Arab states in the region. The Trump administration can use this situation to nudge the Palestinians.
It is extremely unlikely that Trump will walk back his declaration, so it is best to find a way forward. Any workable resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict would require Israel to share Jerusalem, and some part of East Jerusalem becoming the capital of a sovereign Palestine. The potential dividend for this small investment will be huge — not in the least because progress on the Palestinian issue means less room for Iran to exploit the issue to advance its regional influence.
Muqtedar Khan is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy. He also is a Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
Image Courtesy: AP