by Alexander O. Onukwue
By announcing that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Donald Trump has taken the unconventional route towards achieving “the ultimate deal”.
Mr Trump’s announcement on the 6th of December is the most controversial move yet of his 10-month old administration but while his other proclamations have had to affect the United States primarily, Trump’s words last Wednesday about the status of Jerusalem has the potential to throw the entire Arab world into turmoil.
A categorical statement on who should own Jerusalem as a capital city has been avoided as some sort of forbidden fruit or Pandora’s Box by the last 12 US Presidents, on the principle that the US should be an impartial mediator in the matter. By intervening in the way he has done, the 45th US President has torn the script of history but the fire into which he is putting the ashes could leave a lot of bloody eyes.
What Trump Said
“I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” Trump announced. “My announcement marks the beginning of a new approach to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians”. Trump explained that his reason was supported by the fact that most Israeli institutions of government were located in Jerusalem, including the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) and the Israeli Supreme Court. The US president’s understanding is that having come “no closer to achieving lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, it would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result”.
World Leaders Say: Definitely Not the Way to Go
Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, hailed Trump’s announcement as an “important step towards peace”. However, he is the only one whose congratulations have been received at Washington. Most European leaders and nearly all leaders in the Arab world have chosen different words to denounce the US change in track on neutrality about Jerusalem.
The spokesman for the United Nations, Stephane Dujarric, emphasized that the world organisation has “always regarded Jerusalem as a final status issue that must be resolved through direct negotiations between the two parties based on relevant Security Council resolutions”. Speaking for the European Union, Federica Mogherini expressed that the EU’s stance had not shifted from finding a “meaningful peace process towards a two-state solution”, stating that “any action that would undermine this effort must absolutely be avoided”. The Acting German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, noted that “a solution to the Jerusalem problem can only be found through direct negotiations between the two parties. Everything that worsens the crisis is counterproductive in these times”. King Abdullah II of Jordan, a key player in the region and a long-time ally of the United States in managing the conflict, stressed that “there is no alternative to the two-state solution and Jerusalem is key to any peace agreement and is key to the stability of the entire region”.
In more pointed remarks, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, speaking for the Arab League, said Trump was initiating a “dangerous process” and that it “would have consequences”. Saudi Arabia, on which Trump has relied as an ally for fighting terrorism in the Middle East, described the announcement as “unjustified and irresponsible”. Iraqi Prime Minister, Hader Al-Abadi, warned that “this move would unleash turmoil in the region and the world alike”. Al-Abadi noted that Trump’s decision would not just be limited to Israel and Palestine but would affect the rights of the entire Arab and Islamic world.
The “two-state solution” is a Big Deal
Reacting to the issue, under-fire UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, said: “Jerusalem should ultimately form a shared capital between the Israeli and Palestinian states”. Mrs May’s mention of a Palestinian state, which does not technically exist at the moment, is significant. Over the past 70 years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the battle for Jerusalem have rested on the fact that Palestinians have wanted a nation-state of their own, just like Israel’s, based on their distinct national identity. They want East Jerusalem to be their capital. Israel has resisted this and has claimed ownership of many contested areas around the borders as demarcated by the United Nations and Britain in 1947. Israel and Arab Nations have fought wars in 1948 and 1967 over this issue and an Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981 because of the Jimmy Carter-brokered Camp David accord by which Israel gave the Sinai region to Egypt. The Oslo Accord signed in 1993 created the Palestinian Authority and was a major step towards realizing the two-state solution which, it was believed, would see the withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories. However, the tensions have not quite quelled since.
Two intifadas – boycotts and protests which could become violent – have been declared by Palestinian militia groups at previous times to protest Israel’s aggressive occupation of contested areas and it is being threatened that a third might be in the making following Trump’s announcement. The last intifada, between 2000 and 2005, led to the deaths of at least four thousand Palestinians and Israelis, and produced more scepticism that a peace deal could be achieved.
Peace Engineering or Political Machination?
Trump made the point of putting himself atop the moral pedestal by stating that “while previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering”. Hence, a key aspect of analyzing Trump’s decision is determining what its ultimate goal is. Is it, as he says, “the right thing to do” for the sake of peace in Israel and Palestine, or is the US President merely being opportunistic for his own political ambitions?
Standing behind Trump during his announcement in the White House was Vice President Mike Pence whose strong feeling for Israel is well documented. Pence position behind Trump during the announcement was a hat-tip to the conservative bloc in the US who traditionally favour ties with Israel over Palestine. In other words, it is not so much an obvious move to take a different route to peace as it is the Trump-Pence approach towards consolidating its base and making an early case for 2020.
Their “America First” theme has revolved around the idea of a formidable and powerful United States exercising a firm arm in international matters and creating jobs for the local economy. Trump’s announcement included a directive to the US state department to begin the process of relocating the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Touching on his theme of jobs, Trump said the relocation “will immediately begin the process of hiring architects, engineers, and planners, so that a new embassy, hence completed, will be a magnificent tribute to peace”. The US Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995 but presidents before Trump have used waivers that have enabled it operate from Tel Aviv. However, that a US embassy should be the “tribute to peace” in a foreign and contested land is puzzling, to say the least.
So what happens next?
Trump’s announcement did not state how much of Jerusalem the US considers as Israel’s capital, leaving the decision to both parties. However, it has not prevented the interpretation of his decision to make a statement on the status of the city as being reckless. Fireworks and Molotov cocktails are now going off in Jerusalem, and that peace process does not look as obvious as the President had made it sound in his speech.
Without the support of nations like Saudi Arabia and Jordan whom he has courted recently, and having been denounced by partners in the West, Trump’s decision represents another move in isolating the United States from international convention towards interests that are basically “America First”.