In comparison to the focus on opposition to the move and its possible ramifications, relatively little has been said about why Donald Trump’s administration has decided to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and signal its intent to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv.
For example, one widely-shared piece of analysis does not really answer the question in its title, namely, “Why is Trump undoing decades of US policy on Jerusalem?”
I believe there are three main reasons, none of which are mutually exclusive.
First, US domestic politics. Today’s announcement plays well with Trump’s base amongst right-wing Christian evangelicals, as well as with the likes of influential individuals like Sheldon Adelson. “Hallelujah!” proclaims alt-right site Breitbart’s main splash today, welcoming the news.
The fact that such constituencies are already committed to Trump does not rule out the fact that policy steps can be taken as a gift to the converted; Trump-ism has never been about building wide coalitions, or reaching out across various divides, but about energising and mobilising a base.
Don’t forget, of course, that a pledge to move the US embassy to Jerusalem was part of Trump’s election campaign; for a president who has struggled to fulfil his promises, a win is a win.
Second, Benjamin Netanyahu, along with other senior Israeli officials, might well have done a good job in persuading the Trump administration to make such a move – something that the likes of Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and US envoy to Israel David Friedman would be personally amenable to anyway.
For Netanyahu – and this is already evident in remarks made this morning – such a shift in American policy fits nicely with his narrative about a confident, nationalistic Israel expanding its diplomatic ties, the warnings of international isolation from his political enemies shown to be hollow threats.
Whether Trump’s decision on Jerusalem is actually in the best interests of Netanyahu, or his coalition, is a separate matter; but misguided or otherwise, Netanyahu would appear to have been urging the Trump administration to take such a step.
Third – and this is perhaps where many commentators are missing a trick – the Trump administration might well envisage, and justify, the Jerusalem shift in the context of its much-heralded efforts at securing the “deal of the century”.
At first glance this can seem counter-intuitive, since everyone from Jordan to the European Union has criticised the Jerusalem announcement as detrimental to efforts at advancing so-called Israeli-Palestinian “peace” and a “two-state solution”.
In fact, the Trump administration is more likely to view, and present, the Jerusalem move as a gesture to Israel that will create the expectancy or pressure for a corresponding “gesture” in return, such as economic-focused measures in the occupied West Bank.
Whether or not this calculation quite adds up, is another question – though Mahmoud Abbas and his team have, over the years, demonstrated a notable capacity for giving US efforts “one more chance”.
In other words, rather than being an inexplicable spanner in the works of the Trump administration’s wider efforts at birthing the “ultimate deal”, the White House – and perhaps Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman too – may well see the move as part and parcel of that very project (hence the weak response, thus far, from Riyadh).
On the ground, meanwhile, the reality for Palestinian residents of what is an apartheid city remains unchanged: home demolitions, municipal discrimination, brutal raids, and settler-driven displacement. This is Jerusalem’s grim reality that, by their long-standing inaction, Israel’s allies have played a crucial role in facilitating. Trump thus joins a crowded field of the complicit.