Trump’s Jerusalem proclamation backfires

Embassy of the United States in Tel Aviv

On December 6, President Donald Trump appeased his Evangelical constituency by unilaterally proclaiming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, where the US embassy should relocate. Palestinians consider this proclamation as a denial of their rights to East Jerusalem as the capital of their own future state. The Trump declaration has precipitated at least three possibly game-changing, unintended consequences.

First, a restrictive and ill-timed decision on Jerusalem, a city highly revered by all three Abrahamic religions, drags the US administration into a diplomatic corner. Second, this triumphal, presidential action draws the attention of the international community deeper into Israel’s occupation and into Washington’s complicity in it. Third, this pro-Israel action compromises the position of Arab rulers who have opened channels of cooperation with Israel – essentially to halt Iran’s expanding influence in the region.

How did Trump’s act isolate Washington internationally? Trump’s unexpected initiative has ignored ten previous United Nations’ resolutions which stipulate that the status of Jerusalem shall be determined by future peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

In this US Administration, there is no unified articulation of policy. Following Trump’s steps, Vice President Mike Pence declared that he, “as a Christian,” considers Jerusalem the eternal capital of Israel. Pence’s version of the proclamation could be seen by Arabs and all Muslims as a Judeo-Christian (fatwa) decision against Islam. No wonder Arab church leaders reacted negatively to a US initiative that exploits Christian theology in politics.

This initiative contradicts the spirit and logistics of Trump’s Israel-Palestine peace plan which is supposedly in the making. Trump’s Jerusalem initiative may not even be a high political priority for many pragmatic and thoughtful Israelis and Jewish Americans. Critics of Trump see the proclamation as giving legitimacy to Israel’s occupation, to disputed settlements and to the control of living conditions of 6.4 million Palestinians.

Trump’s provocative act reached sentiments far beyond the Arab and Muslim world. Often, the US Administration has to be reminded of its limits in impacting international affairs. On December 18 the UN Security Council condemned all unilateral decisions on Jerusalem through a firm draft resolution, which was naturally vetoed by the US, but supported by the other fourteen members of the Council. The Palestinians pushed their case further by appealing to the UN General Assembly. They were rewarded: the overwhelming majority of the UN General Assembly members voted on December 21 against the Jerusalem proclamation. Humiliated by an overwhelming vote of disapproval, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, issued a threat to cut funding for the UN body itself, and for all countries that voted their conscience against US wishes.

Ironically, Trump’s decision may have helped the Palestinian cause. Palestinians now feel energized by an immediate and unequivocal international response to Washington’s impulsive crossing of a red line drawn by international law. In their pursuit of statehood, Palestinians are now in a better position to apply for full membership in all UN and other international organizations. The diplomatic solidarity the Palestinians received this week might strengthen their path toward a peaceful and creative struggle for self-determination. Will the Palestinian leaders rise to the challenge? The quality of their struggle will indeed dictate the quality of their future state.

The third dimension of unintended consequences is in play. Trump’s proclamation has weakened important Arab rulers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Palestinians are enjoying a period of burgeoning international support. In contrast, Israel-friendly Arab rulers are feeling more vulnerable to the Arab street, which has been provoked by Trump’s Jerusalem adventure. Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, is no longer able to accept US leadership in the peace process. In a matter of two weeks, Palestinian leadership shifted from seeking political support from Washington to evading the US-inspired mediation.

The Jerusalem proclamation may have unintentionally generated a new political climate for the Arab-Israeli disputes, for one thing elevating the centrality of Palestine in the region. Pro-Trump Arab rulers are no longer as empowered to confront Iran at the expense of advocacy for Palestine. The Palestinian Authority is no longer able to cooperate closely with Washington and Tel Aviv. Iran and its local Arab allies -such as Hamas and Hezbollah- have a stronger argument for mobilizing armed resistance against Israel. Because of their established diplomatic relations with Israel and strong connections to Washington, Egypt and Jordan will have to be more cautious in taking norm-breaking initiatives pertaining to the Palestine question.

Neither the proclamation nor the international response to it will change the status quo of Jerusalem. Expect dramatic surprises in 2018 on the Arab-Israeli issue. Trump’s unilateral decision on Jerusalem, Pence’s faith-based rationalization of the status of Jerusalem, and Haley’s concept of foreign aid-conditional-to-compliance have significantly lowered the standards of US diplomacy. The US can no longer follow two independent diplomatic tracks, one for peace mediation and the other for unconditional support of Israel.