Creating new perspectives since 2009

Trump’s move on Jerusalem: Is this the end of US diplomacy in the Middle East?

December 7, 2017 at 9:17 am

Palestinians in Gaza watch as US President Donald Trump recognises occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on 6 December 2017. [Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency]

Finally, US President Donald Trump pulled the plug.

The so-called peace process, two-state solution, “land-for-peace formula” and all the other tired clichés have been long dead and decomposing. But Trump’s announcement yesterday to officially recognise Jerusalem as capital of Israel has also laid to rest the illusion that the US was ever keen on achieving a just and lasting peace between Israel and its neighbours.

What is left to be said by those who have placed the Palestinian national project of liberation on hold for nearly three decades, waiting for the US to fulfill its self-designated role of an “honest peace broker”?

The Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared a “day of rage” in response to Trump’s announcement. Way to deflect attention from the real crisis at hand: the fact that the PA has miserably failed by leasing the fate of Palestine to Washington, and, by extension to Israel as well.

The recent love affair

“I have determined that it is time to officially recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Trump said in Washington. The embattled president has done what many had asked him not to do. But the truth is, US foreign policy has been bankrupt for years. It was never fair, nor did it ever intend to be so.

Trump’s words from Washington were a tamed version of his statement before the Israel lobby last year.

The flags of Israel and the US are reflected by Israeli authorities on western parts of the historical walls around the Old City of occupied Jerusalem to mark US President Donald Trump's speech regarding the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on December 6, 2017. [Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]

The flags of Israel and the US are reflected by Israeli authorities on western parts of the historical walls around the Old City of occupied Jerusalem to mark US President Donald Trump’s speech regarding the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on December 6, 2017. [Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]

In March 2016, Republican presidential candidate Trump delivered his famous speech before the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Then, he revealed the type of politician he truly is. By Washington’s standards, he was a “good politician”, devoid of any values.

In his speech he made many promises to Israel. The large crowd could not contain their giddiness.

Of the many false claims and dangerous promises Trump made, a particular passage stood unique, for it offered early clues to what the future administration’s policy on Israel and Palestine would look like. The signs were not promising:

“When the United States stands with Israel, the chances of peace really rise and rises exponentially. That’s what will happen when Donald Trump is president of the United States,” he declared, a fraudulent statement that was preceded with a loud applause and even ended with a louder cheer.

Read: From now on, you are either with Jerusalem or Yerushalayim

“We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem,” he announced. The mixed cheers and applause were deafening.

The truth is, however, Trump’s love affair with Israel is actually relatively recent. He had made several pronouncements in the past that in fact irked Israel and its powerful backers in the US. But when his chances of becoming the Republican nominee grew, so did his willingness to say whatever it takes to win Israel’s approval. But isn’t this the American way of doing politics?

Now that Trump is president, he is desperate to maintain the support of the very constituency that brought him to the White House in the first place. The right-wing, conservative, Christian-evangelical constituency remains the foundation of his troubled presidency.

So, on 4 December, Trump picked up the phone and began calling Arab leaders, informing them of his decision to announce a move that has been delayed for many years: relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Arabs fumed, or needed to play that part, for such a move would surely create further destabilisation in a region that has been taken on a destructive course for years. Much of that instability is the outcome of misguided US policies, predicated on unwarranted wars and blind support for Israel.

Moreover, the pro-US Middle Eastern camp has itself been struggling under constant conflict, internal splits and a growing sense of American abandonment.

Why Jerusalem

If Trump declares Jerusalem the capital of Israel, it will seem that a cornerstone of US foreign policy in the Middle East has been removed. There can be no talk about a “two-state solution”, a “Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital”, and all the other platitudes that defined the US political discourse in the region for decades.

Worse, United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 have served as the trademark of US approach regarding what has been termed the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict” since 1967. The resolutions call for Israeli withdrawal from the territories it occupied since the war of 1967. Since then, East Jerusalem has been recognised by international law and even by every country that extended diplomatic ties with Israel as an integral part of the Occupied Territories.

Trump’s recent decision constitutes a total US reversal in its approach, not only regarding its own working definition of peacemaking, but to the entire Middle East, considering that Palestine and Israel have been at the centre of most of the region’s conflicts.

It may have appeared that in March 2016, when Trump elatedly announced his intentions to relocate his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, he spoke like every American politician would: making lofty promises that cannot be kept.

Perhaps, but there are factors that made this embassy move an attractive option for the Trump administration:

The US is currently experiencing unprecedented political instability and polarisation. Talks of impeaching the president are gaining momentum, while his officials are being paraded before Department of Justice investigators on various accusations, including collusion with foreign powers.

Read more: Losing Jerusalem to focus on Iran

Under these circumstances, there is no decision or issue that Trump can approach without finding himself in a political storm, except one issue, that being Israel. Being pro-Israel has historically united the US’ two main parties, the Congress, the media and many Americans, lead among them Trump’s political base.

Indeed, when the Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995, purportedly violating its legislative role, Trump’s interest in politics was quite haphazard and entirely personal.


The Congress has gone even further. Attempting to twist the arm of the White House, it added a clause, giving the administration till May 1999, to carry out the Congress’s diktats or face a 50 per cent cut in the State Departments’ budget allocated to “Acquisition and Maintenance of Buildings Abroad”.

It was an impossible ultimatum. The US, by then, had positioned itself as an ‘honest peace broker’ in the peace process – a political framework that defined its entire American foreign policy outlook in the Middle East.

To avoid violating the Congress’ public law, and to maintain a thread, however thin, of credibility, every US president has signed a six-month waiver; a loophole in Section 7 of the law that allowed the White House to postpone the relocation of the embassy.


Jared Kushner (L), US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, shakes hand with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in East Jerusalem on 24 August 2017. [Israeli Prime Ministry/Handout]

Fast forward to Trump’s AIPAC speech. His pledge to move the embassy then seemed merely frivolous and opportunistic.

That was the wrong assessment, however. Collusion between the Trump team and Israel began even before he walked into the Oval House. They worked together to undermine UN efforts in December 2016 to pass a resolution condemning Israel’s continued illegal settlement in the Occupied Territories, including Jerusalem.

Names of individuals affiliated with the administration’s policy towards Israel spoke volumes of the messianic nature of the government’s future outlook. David Friedman, Trump’s bankruptcy attorney, was picked as US ambassador in Israel; Jason Greenblatt was appointed as the administration’s top Middle East negotiator. Both men were known for their extremist, pro-Israel views – views that were seen as dangerous even by mainstream US media.

Chosen to lead the “peace” efforts was Trump’s son-in-law and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s good friend, Jared Kushner. Trump’s dedication to Israel was clearly not fleeting.

By accepting Israel’s illegal annexation of Occupied East Jerusalem, Trump ends an American political gambit that lasted decades; supporting Israel unconditionally, while posing as a neutral, honest party.

Although his move is aimed at appeasing Israel, its US allies in government, and his base of fundamentalists and conservatives, he is also shedding a mask that every US president has worn for decades.

However, Trump’s decision, while it will upset the delicate political equilibrium in the Middle East, will neither cancel nor reverse international law. It simply means that the US has decided to drop the act, and walk wholly into the Israeli camp, further isolating itself from the rest of the world by openly defying international law.

And by doing so, it will, oddly enough, negate the paradoxical role it carved for itself in the last 50 years – that of peacemaker.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.