Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1373, (14 - 20 December 2017)
Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Issue 1373, (14 - 20 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Playing to a domestic audience

Donald Trump’s decision to recognise occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital reflects the influence of right-wing extremists surrounding the US president, writes Khaled Dawoud

Playing to a domestic audience
Playing to a domestic audience

Criticism of US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and his plan to move the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv, has grown in the United States and around the world since he made the announcement last week.

As the UN Security Council met on Friday in New York to discuss the unilateral move protesters across the Muslim world took to the streets to denounce the decision. Five European countries — Britain, France, Germany, Sweden and Italy – issued a joint statement after the UN session describing Washington’s decision to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem as “unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region”.

Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, all close US allies, warned of the consequences of the move on prospects to resume peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

US media reports say Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser Jared Kushner has been working on a proposal to restart peace talks between Israel and Palestinians in coordination with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. Trump’s latest decision has now placed those plans on the back-burner, at least for now, says an informed Arab diplomat.

A survey conducted on Thursday by The New York Times of recent American ambassadors to Israel nominated by both Republican and Democratic administrations found nine out of 11 of them disagreed with Trump’s decision. Also in the US, more than 100 Jewish studies scholars across the country signed a petition opposing the move.

With the White House facing widespread criticism for its decision to break with a decades-long precedent in its position on Jerusalem the question arises why the Trump administration chose to wilfully ignored the concerns of close US allies in the region and Europe.

Martin Indyk, former US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a former US ambassador to Israel, says Trump’s decision addresses a domestic audience and is easily explained.

“It was an appeal to his evangelical Christian base, pure and simple,” says Indyk, now the executive vice president of the Brookings Institution.

US Vice President Mike Pence, known for his conservative, right-wing views, has long supported moving the US embassy to Jerusalem despite warnings from the US State Department and the Pentagon. Pence is due to visit the Middle East next week and faces the prospect of redrawing his schedule after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church all announced they would not meet him in protest at Trump’s decision.

Steven Spiegel, director of the Centre for Middle East Development at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), agrees that pleasing Trump’s base of Christian evangelical and conservative Jewish supporters was a key element in the decision.

During his presidential campaign Trump repeatedly promised to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US embassy.

With his declaration, Trump, who has struggled to win legislative victories despite his Republican Party holding control of both houses of Congress, fulfilled a campaign pledge and did so with relative ease.

Unlike many of Trump’s other efforts to make good on his campaign promises, such as repealing former president Barack Obama’s health care reform or implementing a travel ban, recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is low-hanging fruit as it really can be done by presidential action alone, according to observers.

But there’s another — non-political — factor that helps explain Trump’s decision to undo decades of US foreign policy, and that is Trump’s inclination to shake things up, said UCLA’s Spiegel. “It’s a penchant that in itself is not necessarily a bad idea,” he added.

“Shaking things up, coming up with a better idea – sure, but this wasn’t weighted to do that, especially if you are not going to mention that East Jerusalem will be the Palestinian capital,” he said.

Before Trump was sworn in as president, Kushner was already showing remarkable willingness to follow directions from Israel’s far-right Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to court papers in the trial of former National Security adviser Michael Flynn, accused of lying to the FBI on his contacts with Russian officials during Trump’s election campaign, the transition team worked at the request of Netanyahu to defeat a UN resolution criticising Israel’s ongoing settlement construction. 

US media has reported Kushner told Flynn to call members of the Security Council in an effort to stop the vote, a potential violation of the Logan Act which criminalises negotiations by unauthorised persons with foreign governments involved in disputes with the US.

One of Trump’s biggest campaign contributors, billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, is also reported to have played a major role in pressing the US president take a decision on Jerusalem which former US presidents avoided out of fear of igniting violence in the Middle East,  and weakening Washington’s hand as a mediator.

Adelson and his wife Miriam donated over $35 million to Trump’s campaign and $5 million for his inauguration. Adelson is said to have become impatient over Trump’s delays in moving the embassy and fulfilling his campaign promise.

Adelson, who once accused Palestinians of existing “to destroy Israel,” was said to be “furious” with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for suggesting in a Meet The Press interview that moving the embassy should be contingent on the peace process. The Las Vegas billionaire said he did not buy that argument, and told Trump that Palestinians are impossible negotiating partners and make demands that Israel can never meet.

The Las Vegas Review Journal, which is owned by Adelson, reported in October that “the Adelsons reportedly have been disappointed in Trump’s failure to keep a campaign pledge to move the US embassy to Jerusalem on his first day in office.”

Unconditional support for Israel is Adelson’s “central value” said Newt Gingrich in 2012, when Adelson was funding his presidential campaign.

Senior US administration officials have defended Trump’s decision. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, claimed Trump’s announcement was “courageous” and fulfilled a promise he made to the American people during his election campaign.

“It’s the right thing to do because it’s just reality. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” Haley told CBS on Sunday. “When the American people say they want something, it’s their will that we’re supposed to follow. I think that when you recognise the truth, when both parties recognise reality, peace comes.”

Haley repeated the same arguments she made during an emergency session held by the UN Security Council a week ago: “If you notice when the president spoke, he made it very clear. He didn’t talk about boundaries, he didn’t talk about borders, he didn’t get into any of that because the final status of Jerusalem is between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It’s not for the Americans to decide,” she said.

“What you saw was a courageous move by the president. And of course any time you have to use courage, any time you have to go against the status quo, you’re going to have people saying the sky is falling. But the sky is not falling. If anything, what we’re going to see is both sides are going to come to the table. They’re going to decide what they think Jerusalem should look like. And we’re going to support that process.”

Haley, who is widely tipped to succeed Tillerson as US Secretary of State, argued that by deciding to violate former UN Security Council resolutions insisting Israel withdraw from all territories it occupied by force on 5 June, 1967, including East Jerusalem “the president took Jerusalem off the table.” 

“Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Take that off the table. Tell both sides to come together and say, ‘Okay, you decide how you want to split up Jerusalem. You decide if you’re going to create boundaries or borders there.’ And let them decide.”

During the Security Council meeting Haley was clearly isolated. Indeed, it was two of America’s closest allies, Britain and France, that called for the emergency meeting of the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council to air their concerns over Trump’s decision.

The emergency meeting on 8 December, which Egypt, Bolivia, Italy, Senegal, Sweden and Uruguay had also requested, turned out to be a many-nation plea for calm following what the Palestinian ambassador to the UN called an “irresponsible and unilateral” act by Trump.

The timing of the meeting was eerie, as it was almost a year ago when the council approved a resolution condemning Israel for its continued illegal settlements, a resounding criticism that distanced the United States, which abstained from the vote, from its historical ally, Israel. The resolution was simultaneously denounced by the incoming Trump administration.

Virtually all the countries on the council reiterated their support of the two-state solution with Jerusalem as the capital of both states.  

Japan’s Ambassador Koro Bessho, used unusually frank language for his country, noting that the US step left Japan “deeply worried about heightening tension on the ground”.

France’s remarks reflected the positions of many council members, especially Europeans. “Without an agreement on Jerusalem, there won’t be any peace agreement,” said François Delattre, the French ambassador to the UN. “There is simply no plan B to the two-state solution.”

 Bolivia, in its remarks, suggested that the council must go beyond dialogue on the “Israeli occupation” of Palestine, otherwise the council itself “will be occupied territory.”

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