Jerusalem: US policy moves towards the fringe

On every level, Trump’s decision to break with decades of US diplomacy is a terrible mistake

US president Donald Trump announces that his country will recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and in doing so will move the US embassy from Tel Aviv. Video: The White House

 

With his senselessly provocative declaration that the United States will recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Donald Trump has shown he has little interest in brokering a workable peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians and underlined how, under his presidency, the US is rapidly relinquishing its leadership position in the world.

Although Israel’s government has been based in Jerusalem since 1948, the world has never recognised the city as Israeli territory. The Oslo Accords committed Israel to negotiating Jerusalem’s future as part of a peace agreement. Though it has been assumed that under any deal it would become the Israeli capital, it is also assumed that Palestinians will be able to locate their capital in East Jerusalem, giving them access to and control over Muslim holy sites there. Israel has been doing its best to undermine the latter prospect by aggressive illegal settlement-building that has placed some 200,000 Israelis among the Arab population of East Jerusalem. That has caused justifiable anger among Palestinians, and Trump’s incendiary move will only make a volatile situation more unstable.

On every level, Trump’s decision to break with decades of US diplomacy on Jerusalem is a terrible mistake. It is an insult to Palestinians, and will make it far more difficult for the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to persuade sceptics in his own ranks there is still a realistic prospect of a two-state solution – a principle Israel has all but repudiated.

Moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv will not change life for a single Israeli citizen. Nor will it make Israel any safer. Indeed, it will harm Israel’s interests by making it immeasurably more difficult to restart the moribund peace process. With Trump’s unilateral move the White House has dispensed with the fiction that it can be an honest broker for peace. Trump regards himself as the consummate dealmaker, and Israel-Palestine as the ultimate deal. Yet what negotiator concedes one of his biggest cards before talks begin and without receiving anything in return? With grotesque irony, the decision came as the White House finalised its peace plan for the Middle East.

The only frame in which the decision makes any sense is a narrow, selfish one: Trump’s decision will delight American evangelicals, who see Israeli rule in the holy city as fulfilment of biblical phophecy.

But the decision will damage the US and its standing in the world. By breaking with the international consensus and defying traditional allies, Trump has moved Washington firmly onto the foreign policy fringe. Its relationships will suffer, its soft power will ebb and, as a result, it will become more difficult for the US to marshall support and build the alliances crucial to achieving progress on any major international issue.

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