Don’t Be Fooled By the Muted Reaction to Trump’s Jerusalem Gambit
Trump’s Jerusalem gambit isn’t a world-ender—it’s just ill-timed, ill-conceived, ill-considered and unmoored from any real strategy that would advance U.S. national interests, peace or security.
Other than that, it’s great.
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Having spent most of my professional life in and around Arab-Israeli negotiations, and a good part of that trying to finesse or avoid dealing with the Jerusalem issue, it’s taken a little while to recover from the jolt of a president unaware of the city’s complexities and willing to confront the issue head-on without any apparent long-term objective or seemingly a clue of what comes next. Now that the shock has worn off, and we’ve seen protests in Arab capitals that were milder than many expected, a few thoughts:
This had nothing to do with foreign policy
If ever there were a triumph of domestic politics and presidential ego over sound policy calculation, Trump’s Jerusalem decision was it. And it was indeed a fitting tribute to the end of Trump’s first year in office where politics on so many issues—pardon the pun—trumped policy (see the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the Paris climate agreement, NAFTA negotiations and even Iran decertification).
These days, all presidents are locked into the permanent campaign, which typically begins the day after an election. But rarely on foreign policy has a president—like a moth to a flame—been drawn so inexorably toward his own political needs. If you believe Sen. Bob Corker, Trump was ready to start the ball rolling on moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem within 24 hours of his inauguration. And we know his national security team barely convinced him to use his power to invoke national security considerations to avoid a congressional mandate to move the embassy last June.
With the end of the year approaching, Steve Bannon’s white board to-do list of campaign promises beckoned. And with a public approval rating in the 30s, when it came to choosing between Evangelicals, Jews and donors like Sheldon Adelson on one hand and Palestinians, Europeans and much of the world on the other, well … there really wasn’t much of a choice, was there? Eager to say, “I am delivering,” and thrilled at the prospects of once again presenting himself as the anti-Obama, President Trump took great relish in butchering yet another sacred cow, overturning decades of U.S. policy.
“It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result,” he said. So he’s trying something new.
Where’s the strategy?
I’d love to believe Trump’s Jerusalem gambit was tethered to a broader peace process informed by Jared Kushner’s closely held conversations with Arabs and Israelis. Maybe recognizing Jerusalem was part of the Kushner strategy to keep Benjamin Netanyahu sweet with ample amounts of honey so that later during the actual negotiations, Trump could apply the vinegar and press him for concessions to the Palestinians. After all, what Israeli prime minister could say no to Trump after the Jerusalem give-away? Or perhaps Kushner had gotten a commitment from his buddy, the Saudi crown prince, that the Saudis and others were now willing to accept a united Jerusalem under Israeli control with only a symbolic Palestinian capital in Abu Dis and/or on a tiny part of east Jerusalem.
All of this strains credulity to the breaking point. These aren’t elements of a real strategy as much as they are a collection of misplaced hopes. Netanyahu won’t pay for something he believes Israel’s owed for free; and the Arabs won’t so easily change their tune on the third-holiest city in Islam, let alone the city’s most contentious site, the Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount—certainly not without major concessions from Israel and the U.S., and more likely not at all.
In fact, anyone who thought Trump’s move on Jerusalem was a peace process play should lie down and wait quietly until feeling passes. Any president who was serious about a peace process that’s now about as lively as the zombies on “The Walking Dead” wouldn’t have issued any statement on Jerusalem, certainly not in advance of negotiations. And if they said anything, it would have drawn a distinction between West Jerusalem and contained some kind of nod to the Palestinians’ hopes about the east. Instead, Trump’s statement was so tightly wrapped up in tropes about the importance of Jerusalem to Israel that it left no room whatsoever for any meaningful acknowledgment of Palestinian claims, connections and associations with the city. In a mere 11 minutes, Trump managed to undermine the U.S. role as an effective broker, disrespect Palestinian claims and the sensitivity of the Jerusalem issue and make it harder for Arab states to press the Palestinians and reach out to the Israelis.
“Let’s be clear,” Trump’s U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley said on Sunday, attempting to explain and defend the Jerusalem gambit. “The last 22 years, that was a bargaining chip, and it got us nowhere closer to peace. What he did was take it off the table.”
Yes, it’s perfectly clear: Trump has no strategy to achieve his “ultimate deal.” If he were to put on the table a credible plan, including an outcome that would support a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, things could change.
The peace process was already dead. Did Trump’s statement bury it?