Trump’s Jerusalem Gambit

Trump's Jerusalem Gambit

Decades of Middle East diplomacy thrown away in one sentence

“It is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering.”
— Donald J. Trump President of the United States


On December 06, 2017, the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, made his most controversial decision in the realm of foreign policy when he, despite warnings at home and abroad, recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – the city that houses holy places of all three Abrahamic religions and is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. The decision, which has been widely criticized by US allies from Malaysia to Indonesia to France to Britain, reverses decades of American policy in the Middle East. Politicians, scholars, observers, diplomats and policymakers around the world have been discussing the decision, its causes, process and the possible implications in the near future. Although many consider this decision as the most predictable foreign policy decision for Trump to make, it still raises questions about the motivations and process of US foreign policy making as well as the consequences of such a decision.

Major Causes

Since the declaration of the decisions, the first debate has been in regard to the cause of this decision at such a critical time in one of the most volatile regions of the world. Here is a brief analysis of the reason which led Mr Trump to such a polarizing decision:

1. Domestic Motivations

Although President Trump called the decision in “the best interest” of the United States, the questions that arise here are: how the decision can advance and promote US interests? How such a foreign policy can contribute to US power and influence? Given the urgency of other issues in the region, including the civil war in Syria, the situations in Iraq and Yemen and the tension among the Gulf countries, what makes this decision a priority for US foreign policy?

The most important reason behind this decision is domestic motivations. Speculations have ranged from the willingness to keep a campaign promise to the goal of distinguishing himself from former presidents. For some, this decision will consolidate the base of Trump voters, especially among the more conservative segments of the American population. It will likely help him bolster his image among the Jewish lobby in Washington as well as American evangelical groups, his social base.

Steven Spiegel, director of the Center for Middle East development at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), concurred that pleasing Trump’s base of Christian and Jewish conservative supporters was a key element in the decision. During the presidential campaign, Trump had repeatedly promised to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

2. Messing Things Up

With this announcement, the attention on the international front has overshadowed ongoing turmoil for the Trump Administration at home. After the guilty plea from former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Trump is finding it hard to convince people that he did not have any covert support from Russia in his elections as the President. “Part of his history is to throw things out there to throw us off other issues that are sensitive. It’s a way of distracting us from the Russia probe,” asserts Rabbi David Shneyer, founder and director of the Am Kolel Jewish Renewal Community of Greater Washington.

3. Economics at Play

It’s not a secret now that the centuries-old war and struggle under the title of “Jerusalem” is about “Afro-Asian” hinterland. Asia and Africa are retrieving the title of being a “global production and trade centre,” which had been taken away from them through colonialism and the Industrial Revolution for two centuries. The “Jerusalem” issue is an operation that avoids leaving the economic opportunities of “Afro-Asia” hinterland, which represents an economic size of $22 trillion and will reach $193 trillion by 2050. The current process started with Britain’s decision to withdraw in 1948 and the declaration of the Israeli state. Although we are reacting to US President Donald Trump’s declaration today, Jerusalem was actually announced the capital of Israel as a result of a law enacted by US Congress under Bill Clinton’s administration four years after the end of the Cold War.

This step is a direct move toward “Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Architecture.” Moreover, it is an operation aimed at hampering the “Afro-Asian” initiative to be led by China, India, Russia, Turkey, Indonesia, Brazil and Mexico – namely the Emerging Seven (E7) – regardless of the Group of Seven (G7) which is led by the US.

4. Fathering the Illegitimate Israel

The decision, to some analysts, has been shaped by two-pronged interests. On the one hand, the steady access and domination of the oil markets, and on the other, protecting and expanding Israel’s hegemonic power in the region. It is pertinent to mention here that the political elite of the United States, both Democrats and Republicans alike, are firmly aligned with Israeli interests and have regularly expressed support for such a move. As mentioned earlier, the standing law adopted by both the House of Representatives and the Senate demanded the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and ordered the transfer of the US Embassy to the occupied city, while granting the president and State Department the ability to seek a waiver every six months to delay the move. Trump’s policy announcement collapses the double speak and the inherent duplicity that has been the hallmark of US’s diplomacy when dealing with Palestine and the rights of the Palestinians.

5. The Iran Factor

At present, the Arab and Muslim world leadership is heavily fragmented and, for the most part, has aligned itself with Israel’s strategic priorities. Currently, the Arab world’s (with some exceptions) political priorities are focused on “confronting” Iran and deeming it an existential threat to the existing regional order. The current confrontation is being waged in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon and is a secondary stimulus behind the attempted isolation of Qatar. Furthermore, since the success of the counter-revolutions after the Arab Spring, the current crop of leaders in the region utilized Israel’s close relations with the Western states to divert/prevent any criticism of their draconian policies toward their populations. The Arab and Muslim world order has dispensed with Palestine and the Palestinians in favour of protecting their individual seats of power in exchange for supporting Israel’s strategic priorities focused on containing Iran and securing its borders.

Possible Impacts 

1. Violence in Israel-Palestine Conflict

For Donald Trump, Muslim barbarism is a political strategy. It inspires the fear and hatred that binds him to his base. Muslim barbarism is so politically useful, in fact, that, when necessary, Trump creates it. But with the decision on Jerusalem, Trump outdid himself. By announcing that America recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he didn’t just invent Muslim violence, he provoked it. Protests dubbed “the Day of Rage” erupted in Israel. Over the longer term, Trump’s decision increases the odds of violence because it deepens Palestinian despair. Trump’s announcement will only further convince Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank – most of whom lack citizenship in the state that controls their lives – that Israel and the US are dedicated to perpetuating their lack of basic rights. And that hopelessness makes violence more likely.

Trump's Jerusalem Gambit2. Derailment of the Middle East Peace

Donald Trump has thrown the Middle East into a tizzy with a decision that has the potential to further inflame tensions across the region. Chances for a peace deal between Israel and Palestine, which have always been slim, at best, now seem even more remote. The Palestinian leadership condemned the move before Trump spoke, as did leaders from the Arab world and beyond. The announcement of the embassy move is likely to cause a wave of resentment among Palestinians in the occupied territories and the city itself, especially after two decades of stalemate in the peace process and deteriorating conditions throughout the Palestinian territories.

3. Isolation of the US

Undoubtedly, Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will further isolate the US from the rest of the world. Given the administration’s rejection of Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem, in violation of international law which recognises East Jerusalem as belonging to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Washington has signalled its abandonment of a two-state solution more than ever. To be sure, there is no other country that recognises the legitimacy of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, which Trump has now endorsed. With strong support from the international community for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the US is now alone with Israel’s government in opposing this plan. Although no objective observer previously saw Washington as being an honest peace broker between the Palestinians and Israelis, it is now abundantly clear that Washington is unable to play this role.

4. Estrangement of the Middle Eastern allies

Regional powers have already registered strong protests. Many of these are US allies, and some have relations with Israel. Turkey said it will cut ties with Israel, while Jordan said it would thwart any subsequent US-led peace initiative. Egypt and Saudi Arabia too warned Trump that recognition would be a provocation. Arab and Muslim publics around the world would protest the prospect that Jerusalem’s Islamic holy sites will remain permanently outside of Muslim control. Jordan’s King Abdullah II is particularly vulnerable to such charges, since the kingdom sponsors the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, a trust that administers these sites.

Public opposition to US recognition of Jerusalem could also constrain Saudi Arabia, which has quietly been pursuing relations with Israel; the two have a common interest in containing Iran’s regional influence. Popular Saudi support for Palestinian statehood has prevented the kingdom from normalizing relations.


President Trump’s decision will hurt the interests of his regional allies, as it creates a rupture between the Arab street and ineffective leaders across the Arab world. Arab leaders have been unable to adequately represent their people and failed them. To make matters worse, President Trump’s decision fuels anger toward America in the region and deepens Washington’s isolation in the world. One thing is clear: The US cannot pursue a meaningful policy in the Middle East if it alienates the Arab people. This decision is an embodiment of Israeli opportunism and American recklessness. It establishes yet again that problems in the Middle East cannot be solved by outsiders. By recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the US made it clear that it was part of the problem – not the solution. But it is still possible to turn this crisis around. Jerusalem is sacred for various groups in the Middle East. The important thing is to ensure that it unites, as opposed to divides, the region.

15 Points to Remember

1. Jerusalem is in ways symbolic of the Israel-Palestine conflict itself.
2. The tussle centres on who gets to control the ancient city that is sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians.
3. After the end of the First Arab-Israel War in 1948, Jerusalem was partitioned into West and East, under Israeli and Palestinian control, respectively.
4. But in 1967, during the Six-Day Arab-Israel War, Israel snatched East Jerusalem from Jordanian forces.
5. Israel’s Parliament also declared the territory had been “annexed to Israel” and Jerusalem had been “reunited”.
6. A predominantly Palestinian population in the east lives under full Israeli control, but cannot vote in parliamentary elections.
7. This marginalized the Palestinians, who wanted East Jerusalem to be their capital under the “Two-State Solution”.
8. Israel was undeterred by the refusal of the international community to endorse the annexation.
9. It further added over 200,000 Jewish settlers to the once almost entirely Arab East Jerusalem.
10. In 2016, the UN reaffirmed that Jerusalem’s Palestinian territories were under “hostile occupation”.
11. The international community considers East Jerusalem illegally occupied by Israel.
12. Notably, foreign embassies to Israel are in Tel Aviv and not Jerusalem.
13. Trump’s move reflects Jerusalem as the centre of Jewish faith, and the fact that the city is the seat of the Israeli government.
14. The effort to please the core base of pro-Israel hardliners and the overwhelming Jewish population in US cannot be denied. But, as with most political developments in the Middle East, a bigger regional game could also be behind.
15. This possibly includes a US-Saudi-Israel alliance against Iran, the common enemy.

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