Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital hurts allies in the Middle East

U.S.'s unilateral recognition of disputed land as Israeli is not only "a slap in the face" to Arab allies, it also emboldens foes in the region.

President Donald Trump has been promising to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem since his days on the campaign trail. CREDIT: Evan Vucci/AP Photo.
President Donald Trump has been promising to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem since his days on the campaign trail. CREDIT: Evan Vucci/AP Photo.

Upending decades of foreign policy and diplomatic efforts, President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced that the United States would officially recognize Jerusalem — a disputed territory and the subject of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians — as the Israeli capital.

Citing a 1995 law adopted by the U.S. Congress, Trump said he has “determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” He added, “While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering. I’ve judged this course of action to be in the best interest of the United States of America and the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

The U.S. embassy will also be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in due time, with the Trump administration bracing for protests against the decision, advising U.S. personnel to avoid Palestinian territories. East Jerusalem is recognized as Palestinian territory by several U.N. resolutions — dating back to 1967 — and is illegally occupied by Israeli settlers.

Trump said he still called for “a great deal” for both Palestinians and Israelis, but the calculation behind the announcement seems to be two-fold: That the announcement will be popular with Trump’s domestic base, while counting on Gulf Arab allies to be too focused on the perceived threat of Iran to raise a ruckus over the United State’s unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as belonging to Israelis. In effect, this gambit throws the Palestinians under the bus.

Barbara Bodine, a retired ambassador and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, told ThinkProgress that U.S. allies in the region, many of whom have already raised their voices against the announcement, will also certainly see this as “a slap in the face.”

While we might not see major upheaval or protests following this move, Bodine, who served in Kuwait, Iraq, and Yemen, said the distinction should be made between official policy and personal and popular feelings in Muslim countries. The Muslim Public Affairs Council released a statement on ahead of Trump’s Wednesday announcement, warning that, “Turkey has already announced that there would be severe consequences …Palestinian leaders are advocating for demonstrations and protests on the ground, which would trigger turmoil in the region.”

“You have to put this in the broader context of what people see in the region,” said Bodine, “A president who retweets anti-Muslim videos from Britain First, a president who has a [travel] ban on six Muslim countries. It’s going to feed into this sense of officially sanctioned Islamophobia,” she said, adding, “Given Trump’s profile as an Islamophobe, this fits into the narrative in ways that I don’t know how, diplomatically, you square the circle.”

This decision, she said, will have long-term consequences.

“This feeling of being abandoned and betrayed … those are two extraordinarily powerful emotions and what they do is corrode trust and confidence in a way that is extraordinarily difficult to rebuild,” said Bodine.

“The status of Jerusalem has always been something to be decided in negotiation between the two parties. And this basically says, ‘No, we’ve already decided that Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel,'” she said.

“What is not clear and what would be a major issue, is what does that do to the status of the [holy site] Haram al-Sharif? … and if a unified Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, what does that even do to the status of the Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem? What does it to do their access to family, friends, and business? Can you tell me how this works out well?” wondered Bodine.

While it is true that Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had not made any headway in creating peace in the Middle East, as he was charged to do by the president, Bodine said that the United States at least “maintained our position despite a lack of movement — our position on Jerusalem, our position on a two-state solution … there was at least this consistency of policy and position, even if there was not an active process.”

Paul Salem, senior vice president for policy analysis, research and programs at The Middle East Institute, told ThinkProgress that the importance of this announcement shouldn’t be exaggerated when it comes to a peace process that “wasn’t going anywhere,” but added that there “is no doubt that this is a an ‘own goal,’ as they say in soccer.”

“That there is very little positive that accrues to the U.S. in terms of foreign policy — it weakens its allies, aside from Israel, countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, U.A.E. and others who have stood with the administration, who have also tried to engage on the peace process, who have been engaging the Palestinians on the peace process, who have a lot of challenges of their own,” said Salem, adding, “It certainly weakens, harms, exposes those allies who have stood by the U.S.”

He said it would also strengthen the position of U.S. opponents in the region, such as Iran, which Salem said is “the number one security concern” for Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., and, ironically, Iran “will immediately jump on this as fodder for their narrative for the positioning,” as well as other groups, such as Hezbollah and radical insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS).

Not only is this not a good foreign policy move, but, Salem said, it also offers “No positivity for the process of avoiding further conflict in the Middle East, which is a reasonable goal.”

Having said that, Salem added that he is worried about the long-term effects of this unilateral decision, which has virtually no international backing, because of the impact it can have on “long-term, profound” issues of identity and religion in the region.

“Jerusalem is not just a Palestinian town — it’s very important for the entire Muslim world … [F]or the Jews, it’s been a turning point for centuries, and the whole Zionist movement, let alone for the Christian world. For the Muslim world, Jerusalem is a unique city in the world. It’s not just somebody’s capital,” said Salem.

“Jerusalem is an eternal city at the heart of several world religions,” he said. “It runs deep in religions history. Not a town to be trifled with lightly … and that’s unfortunately the way it’s been treated.”