Only a few weeks ago, Benjamin Netanyahu had it all. He had done the impossible and been able to announce that the Gulf States were on Israel’s side. What with Cairo already being fairly solidly against Hamas in the besieged Gaza Strip, this was clearly a diplomatic coup for the Israeli leader.
Now, after Trump’s planned US embassy move and a humiliating defeat at the UN — made worse by embarrassing American threats to the Arab world that aid might be withdrawn — Netanyahu, and Israel, are once again toxic brands.
The protests which swept Muslim nations after Trump’s Jerusalem announcement were considerable. An effigy of the US President was burned in Beirut; 80,000 furious protesters gathered in Jakarta; and Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo was swamped by pro-Palestinian demonstrators. A dozen of those whom they support have now lost their lives in Gaza and the West Bank in the Israeli clampdown on Palestinian protests.
All of these demonstrations put into sharp relief Netanyahu’s achievements abroad. Convincing a handful of Gulf elites to back Israeli expansionism, for no other reason than mutual fear of Iran, counts as nothing against the collective fury of Muslims (and, it must be said, Christians, and many Jews). Jerusalem, at the heart of Abrahamic eschatology, is a holy city above all, and for all. As a Christian French tourist in Bethlehem told the New York Daily News, “The decision of one man cannot affect all the Holy Land… Jerusalem belongs to everybody, you know, and it will be always like that, whatever Trump says.”
We also have to consider the manner in which US Ambassador Nikki Haley has conducted her diplomacy. Her speech at the UN was pure bullying, with threats to withdraw aid levelled at anyone who did not back the American and Israeli position. In this, she was simply mimicking her boss, Donald Trump. America would be “taking the names” of those who did not acquiesce. Trump, as puerile as ever, said he would take it “personally” if nations did not reject the resolution condemning his Jerusalem statement.
The aid argument was particularly nonsensical. By far the biggest recipient of aid in the Middle East is Israel, and there are plenty of countries who would leap at the opportunity to replace Washington as foreign partner of choice should the Americans withdraw their aid across the neighbourhood. Putting the figures into perspective, Al-Jazeera cited the Congressional Research Service to show that US aid to Israel next year will amount to $3.1 billion. Lebanon, meanwhile, could expect $104 million; Yemen $35m; Iraq $348m; Syria $191m; Tunisia $55m; Morocco $16m; Libya $31m; Oman $3.5m; Algeria $1.8m; and Bahrain $800,000.
It is perhaps for all of those reasons that a source close to the leadership of America’s Republican Party has quietly suggested that Netanyahu is furious at Trump’s decision. I have not been able to verify this claim, but it certainly makes sense.
Israel’s Prime Minister may have US recognition of a unified capital, but he is also a canny politician. He knows that in the forum of international opinion, sympathy for the Israeli position is ebbing with every new illegal settlement getting the green light from his government. Gaining international recognition for Jerusalem does not help his situation in this respect. What’s more, he faces an insider threat from Israeli generals and intelligence chiefs who know that a third Palestinian intifada would be difficult to win both militarily and diplomatically. It would certainly be another disaster for Israel on the international stage.
The Trump-induced Jerusalem scenario also distracts from Netanyahu’s successes in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. British and American politicians, and professional diplomats fed up with the peace process, have in recent weeks been noticeably pleased that Netanyahu has managed to convince the Saudis and Emiratis to stand alongside Israel. Now, it seems, any progress made with governments clearly cannot offset popular fury.
It is blatantly obvious that Trump only confirmed the embassy move in order to divert attention from his troubles with the Russia collusion investigation. When the US President made his announcement three weeks ago, four people had just been charged with collusion: Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn; his former campaign manager Paul Manafort; aide Rick Gates; and George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser. The Jerusalem move has neatly distracted the world from all of this; or at least Trump hopes it has.
He did the same sort of thing in early April this year, announcing air strikes on Syria which contradicted his obvious sympathy with the position of Bashar Al-Assad. The move took Washington by surprise and it came just after former FBI director James Comey had confirmed in late March, for the first time, that an FBI investigation was open into whether Trump as President-elect had collaborated with Russian intelligence assets in order to reach the White House; this was unprecedented. A day before the air strikes, former government officials told the New York Times that the CIA had evidence of collusion. A week after the strikes took place, a source told the Guardian that there was “specific concrete and corroborative evidence of collusion.” All everyone was talking about that week, though, was Trump’s volte-face in Syria.
Whether Trump did collude with the Russians or not will be uncovered sooner or later, but it clearly won’t affect Netanyahu’s political prospects. Jerusalem was used by the Trump administration simply to distract from its domestic political problems. It was callous and unbefitting of a President to do so. It was totally inappropriate for him to involve in his dirty politics what so many regard as the holiest city on earth. Far from the Israeli premier being grateful to Washington, Trump owes Netanyahu an apology — for messing everything up.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.