Democracy Dies in Darkness

WorldViews | Analysis

The many casualties of Trump's Jerusalem move

By Ishaan Tharoor

December 11, 2017 at 1:00 AM

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Nearly a week after President Trump's unilateral decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, there are plenty of reasons to be confused by the move.

Despite no real pressure from the Israeli government nor unanimous clamoring in Washington for the move, Trump threw decades of long-standing U.S. policy up in the air. He embraced Jerusalem as Israel's capital without making any nod to Palestinian claims to the eastern part of the city, prompting analysts and former diplomats to write obituaries for the two-state solution. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson then told reporters that the U.S. embassy's relocation from Tel Aviv would probably not happen next year, raising even more questions about the timing of Trump's statement.

And while Trump insists the move is critical to “advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agreement,” it appears to have had exactly the opposite result.

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President Trump said Dec. 6 that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the U.S. Embassy there. Here are key moments from that speech. (The Washington Post)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to skip a meeting with Vice President Pence, who will be journeying to the Holy Land before Christmas. Pence will also be snubbed in Cairo by the head of Egypt's Coptic Church as a result of Trump's decision. French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have said they are jointly working to persuade the White House to reconsider.

Meanwhile, protests continued in Palestinian areas and a number of Middle Eastern and Muslim-world capitals over the weekend. At least four people have been killed following Israeli military strikes in the Gaza Strip. On Sunday, demonstrators in Beirut clashed with police outside the U.S. Embassy; at least eight people were hospitalized in the aftermath.

On his Sunday show, CNN host Fareed Zakaria mused over the impact of Trump's gamble on Jerusalem. “There are ways to solve the Jerusalem problem, such as by carving out some neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city and allowing the Palestinians to claim those as their capital. Trump's announcement actually did not specifically foreclose this possibility, which makes the move even more puzzling,” he said. “It actually achieves little on the ground, all the while offending millions of Palestinians, hundreds of millions of Arabs, and public opinion almost everywhere. When China, your European allies, the Pope, the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan all voice strong opposition, it is surely worth questioning the wisdom of the policy.”

Trump and his allies may be counting on the ultimate apathy of the Arab and European leaders currently wringing their hands. The plight of the Palestinians generates a great deal of goodwill and sympathy from the mythic “international community,” but little more results than strongly worded statements and symbolic gestures. On Sunday, Erdogan offered perhaps the most vehement reaction, dubbing Israel a “terror state” — but even he is unlikely to sever ties with the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, glibly put it at a Security Council session after Trump's announcement: “The sky's still up there. It hasn't fallen.”

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U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Dec. 10 said President Trump did ‘the right thing’ by announcing that he will move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (Reuters)

That may be the eventual conclusion of many Arab officials if protests peter out in the days ahead. That includes Saudi Arabia, which, for all its angry noises over Jerusalem this the past week, is governed by a set of royals far more animated by the threat of Iran — Israel's nemesis — than the conditions endured by millions of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. Governments in Egypt and Jordan also have to balance angry public sentiment against their own dependence on U.S. patronage.

“Arab leaders sold al-Aqsa for dollars. Shame on them,” a Palestinian protester in Beirut told my colleagues, referring to al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of Islam’s holiest shrines.

Of course, no one seems to believe in Trump's commitment to the peace process, either. “It’s really bulls---," said Mohammed Shtayyeh, a former Palestinian negotiator, to the Times of Israel. “Nobody buys it.” Trump's recognition of Jerusalem underscored what many in the region have long believed — that the United States was never seriously an impartial mediator in the conflict, and has instead presided over decades of Israeli settlement expansion that undercut Palestinian claims for sovereignty.

“If anything the 'process' has been ideal camouflage for the steady growth in the number of Israeli settlers (now more than 600,000), favored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government,” wrote columnist Roger Cohen. “It has given steady Israeli expansionism the international benediction of mythical reversibility.”

But if Trump's Jerusalem move was an insult or a blow to Palestinian leadership, it may give Palestinians a new clarity about the political battle ahead.

The situation now marks “a defeat for what was anyway a failed Palestinian approach, one in desperate need of change,” wrote Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator and president of the U.S./Middle East Project. “The clarity which the Trump administration is offering the Palestinians with regards to how counterproductive it is to continue pursuing an American-led peace process, to continue neglecting the accumulation of Palestinian leverage, that clarity may end up being more of a cause of concern for Israel.”

And why is that? Because it may refocus the conversation on the moral conundrum of perpetuating an indefinite occupation. After Trump's speech, Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian negotiator who has spent years working toward a two-state solution, declared the process over and hailed “the struggle for one-state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea.”

“If there is a silver lining to Trump’s announcement, it’s that it provides ... a unifying objective for Palestinians,” wrote journalist Dalia Hatuqa, gesturing to a wave of civil disobedience protests that took place in the West Bank over the summer. “And with a vision for a one-state solution unimpeded by a sham peace process and finally able to gain traction, a new reality seems possible.”

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.


Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.

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