US President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his accompanying decision to shift the US Embassy to it from Tel Aviv, might convulse the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world, but it primarily reflects the exigencies of US domestic politics. That the decision came just before the special election in Alabama to fill the Senate seat vacated by President Trump’s Attorney General, must be factored in, with a move designed to win support from the conservatives and evangelicals strong there. However, it fulfilled a campaign promise, an important consideration after the failure of his Obamacare repeal pledge.
Domestic promises run into opposition of some kind, so foreign policy is left. The decision to move to Tel Aviv dates back to the Clinton Presidency, and the demand goes back even longer, with presidential candidates routinely adopting the promise, but then not fulfilling the demand if elected. Congress passed enabling legislation back in 1992, but allowed a president to waive moving six months at a time. In fact, Trump just did not issue a waiver, rather than take any extraordinary step.
However, he used the opportunity to curry favour with the Zionist lobby, which is essentially the pro-Israeli lobby. That lobby has disproportionate influence in the USA, because of the political activism of its members in both parties, and because this activism is accompanied by deep pockets. An important ingredient in the USA is the presence among evangelicals, themselves strong, of Christian Zionists, who believe that a strong Israel is essential to the Second Coming of Christ, which will signal the End of Days.
Pushing the USA towards the Israeli position is thus very pleasing to the Zionists, both Jewish and Christian, in the USA. The Palestinians hold that East Jerusalem, which Israel took in the 1967 Six-Day War, will serve as the capital of a Palestinian state in a two-state solution. This was the upshot of the 1995 Oslo Accords. On the other hand, since its creation in 1948, Israel has held that Jerusalem, undivided, is its capital. Even those countries which recognized Israel did not accept that West Jerusalem was the capital, even though it included the Knesset, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Supreme Court, and placed their embassies in Tel Aviv, where other government offices were also located.
Though the USA has always been firmly pro-Israeli, it has been accepted as an honest broker by the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which made the Oslo Accords on behalf of the Palestinian people. Trump’s latest step seems to pre-figure the acceptance of the Israeli position (Israel has annexed East Jerusalem, but not the remaining territories it has occupied. It should be noted that even pre-1967 Israel came into being when Britain gave its Mandate of Palestine independence. The Palestinians dislocated in An-Nakba (the Catastrophe) were dispersed either into refugee camps, where they and their descendants remain 70 years on, or exile throughout the world. The Right of Return has been granted to Jews, who get Israeli citizenship as soon as they land in Israel, but has been denied to Palestinians who had lived there for generations until An-Nakba.
For a long time, recognition had been the main issue. After 1967, there was also the issue of getting back territory lost during the War. The Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip were lost by Egypt, the Golan Heights by Syria and East Jerusalem and the West Bank by Jordan. While Israel gave Egypt back Sinai in exchange for recognition, it has reservations about handing back the Golan Heights for security reasons, and wants to use the West Bank for settlements.
President Trump’s son-in-law and aide, Jared Kushner, has been assigned the task of negotiating a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. His partner in this is Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who has been looming larger in the Kingdom. Muhammad bin Salman is key to the Trump Administration’s attempt to portray the Saudi-Iranian dispute as the core issue of the Middle East, rather than the Palestinian issue. The embassy shifting, according to many critics, should have accompanied that peace plan, and not just been a stand-alone item.
One of the primary concerns of these critics is the reaction of not just the Arab world, but the entire Muslim world. The reaction is feared not just because the issue is visceral, but the regimes against which protests would come are fragile. As they are despotic regimes, their suppression of dissent is ferocious, and there is no mechanism by which any issue can be raised. One result of this repression has been the sweeping under the carpet of so many issues, including governance ones, which might all resurface if anti-US protests are allowed.
Another difficulty is the peace plan Kushner is likely to propose. The read-out of the plan made public by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, after it was presented to him by another US ally, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed of the UAE, is so strongly tilted towards Israel as to be virtually valueless. Not only will it be impossible to deliver for any Palestinian leader, but it will threaten to bring down any Arab leader who favours it. According to that plan, East Jerusalem would not be the capital of a future Palestinian state, and that would consist of non-contiguous parts of the West Bank to allow Jewish settlements to remain. Further, the right of return would be renounced for Palestinians.
That plan might work for Israel, but any Arab leader who proposed it would risk not just being overthrown, but might end up suffering the fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi or Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. As those likely to have this task to perform are US allies, the USA might end up with only Israel as a friend in the region. Coupled with the embassy announcement, the whole adds up to ineptitude remarkable even for Trump. However, even if there is no peace deal, Israel has still got the shifting of the US Embassy. This will only encourage the Zionist lobby to press forward. It should be remembered that Trump is vulnerable to the charge of anti-Semitism, because of his tolerance of neo-Nazis and other far-right groups. Shifting the embassy burnishes his credentials within an important support group. However, it has further alienated important allies like Turkey and France.
Pakistan has two important reasons to watch this situation. First, its own population might resent the US move enough to launch protests against the government, already embattled will need to control. Then, the expected wave of anti-US sentiment comes at a time when the relationship has already been strained. Second, the relationship between Israel, the Jewish Diaspora in the USA, and the Palestinians have eerie parallels with that between India, the Indian diaspora in the USA, and the Kashmiris. Pakistan had not just supported the Palestinians because they were a colonized people or they were fellow-Muslims, but also because their plight seemed like that of the Kashmiri people. The closeness developed by India with the USA will bear watching, especially as India has developed relations with Israel over the years. Trump’s run of luck might well end with this decision.
The last time the Muslim world came together was in 1969, when a fire in the Al-Aqsa Mosque caused the OIC to form. Trump faces the danger, along with his Zionist backers, that this move might provoke a united reaction beyond the increased output of radicals that is feared. The Muslim states, however, as shown in the OIC special session, did nothing but squawk.
n The writer is a veteran journalist and
founding member as well as executive
editor of The Nation.