In an age where disruption is the new normal, this one surely gets the cake. The US President Donald Trump, overturning decades of carefully calibrated American diplomatic posturing over the last seven decades, has formally declared Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. With this, an already volatile Middle East is set to explode once again. In a region where certitudes of the past were already under pressure, this move by the Trump administration can have a really far-reaching impact on how regional politics will evolve in the coming years.
While announcing his decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move which will take years to operationalise, the US President said he was casting aside the “failed strategies of the past.” Defying global warnings Trump said he “judged this course of action to be in the best interest of the US and the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.” “We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies of the past,” Trump argued as he officially recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trump underlined his administration’s support for a two-state solution to the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if approved by both sides, which would essentially see the creation of an independent Palestinian state living alongside Israel.
The reactions have been equally strident. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was a historic day, and Israel was profoundly grateful to President Trump. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, on the other hand reaffirmed that Jerusalem was the “eternal capital of the state of Palestine”. He made it clear that “these condemned and unacceptable measures are a deliberate undermining of all efforts exerted to achieve peace and represent a declaration of the United States’s withdrawal from undertaking the role it has played over the past decades in sponsoring the peace process.” Calling for Muslims across the Middle East to rise up against US interests, Hamas, which controls the Gaza strip, accused Trump of “flagrant aggression.”
American allies too have spoken against the decision. European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini criticised this decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem during her talks with the US Secretary of State who is on a tour of Europe. British Prime Minister Theresa May openly disagreed with the US decision, which she argued was “unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region.” And French President Emmanuel Macron also did not support the move. Eight of the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council have called for an urgent meeting on the US decision by the end of the week.
What is perhaps more interesting is that the US government doesn’t seem all that united behind this decision. The Pentagon and State Department have refused to wholeheartedly back the decision. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert declined to fully back the move, saying only “the issue rests with the President.” The Pentagon is gearing up for growing military threats with contingency plans in place, in the event that violence breaks out. Additional teams of US Marines have been dispatched to several US embassies in the Middle East as a precaution.
The history behind this decision remains as complicated as ever and that was the reason why successive US administrations kept away from disturbing the status quo. The status of Jerusalem, which contains sites sacred to the three major monotheistic faiths — Judaism, Islam and Christianity — is one of the most sensitive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the Palestinian leadership, setting up their own capital in East Jerusalem is central to a potential peace settlement. East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel after the Six Day War of 1967, but is not internationally recognised as part of Israel. All countries have been maintaining their embassies in Tel Aviv.
Despite the US Congress passing the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995 which required the US to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by a set deadline, successive US Presidents kept on signing a six-monthly waiver deemed necessary “to protect the national security interests of the United States.” Trump has changed all that. For him, this is a fulfillment of his campaign promise to his conservative and evangelical base. Though he has underscored his administration’s commitment to a two-state solution, he has made it contingent on an agreement by both sides. For America, this can significantly weaken its position as neutral broker in the peace process. China and Russia might rush in to fill the void.
At the broader regional level, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has said that the move “would constitute a flagrant provocation of Muslims, all over the world.” It is not readily evident if this would mark a rupture in Saudi-US ties. In the past, America’s Arab allies in the region have had either official or covert ties with Israel. Today, a Saudi-Israeli-American equation has been emerging to counter a perceived threat from a resurgent Iran. Despite their rhetoric, the Palestinian cause has never been a priority for the Arab world. They will milk it to satisfy their domestic anger but beyond that are unlikely to do anything significant. They have bigger problems at hand. The reaction from the Arab street is an entirely different matter.
After this decision, New Delhi will face its own set of challenges as it moves in crafting a policy that responds to its converging strategic interests with Israel as well as its support for the aspirations of the Palestinians.
This commentary originally appeared in DNA.