In politics, grand gestures often backfire on those who make them. Think of Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich in 1938, waving a piece of paper with Adolf Hitler’s signature scribbled at the bottom and proclaiming, “Peace for our time.”
The decision by United States President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a similarly dramatic act, contrary to all apparent common sense. Whether it will indeed be a Chamberlain moment for Trump, or whether it will be – as he predicts – the diplomatic masterstroke that gets the peace process between Israel and Palestine moving again, is yet to be determined.
Emotionally, Jerusalem has been the heart of Judaism literally for millennia and the country’s de facto capital since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. It is the seat of Israeli government, home to its parliament and the supreme court.
It contains some of the world’s most important Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious sites and is also the epicentre of Palestinian nationalism. Because of this disputed status, it has never beeninternationally recognised as the Israeli capital and resolving its legal status has always been one of the major issues in negotiations on the Palestinian conflict.
In practical terms, however, Trump’s move makes little immediate difference. No other countries will extend recognition in the near future and there is not going to be an influx of foreign embassies moving to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
Once erected, the US embassy will be the only diplomatic mission in town and that moment is not imminent, with construction likely to take almost as long as building Trump’s infamous wall along the US border with Mexico. In fact, Trump’s announcement was immediately followed by him signing a waiver – likely the first of many following the relocation decision – that officially delays the US embassy move to Jerusalem for six months.
At a stroke, Trump has now upended decades of US policy. He has also put the US at odds with every one of its traditional allies in Europe, thumbed his nose at the United Nations, and ignored international law.
Conventional wisdom has it that Trump has provocatively touched a match to a powder keg, dashing any hopes that might remain of a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. There are dire warnings of yet another intifada and US entities around the world are bracing themselves for a violent kickback.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and all the leaders of the Muslim world have condemned the Jerusalem decision as a dangerous escalation of tensions. Pope Francis has expressed “deep concern” and appealed for adherence to the UN-brokered status quo on the city.
The Chinese say Trump’s decision is “foolhardy”, one of the kinder assessments. Key Middle East ally Saudi Arabia called it “irresponsible and unwarranted”. A Palestinian envoy said it was a “declaration of war” in the Middle East.
So why has Trump gone so far out on a limb? Part of it lies in the contempt he holds for an American political establishment that he perceives to be weak and hypocritical.
American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is enshrined in legislation that was passed as far back as 1995, with hand-on-heart support from both Democrats and Republicans. However, the implementation of that decision has been waived at six-monthly intervals by every US president since then.
Most observers would see this as realpolitik. Trump and the constituency that elected him see it as moral cowardice, just another reason why America international influence and power are waning.
“While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver,” said Trump. “Today, I am delivering.”
This is Trump, in the mode of the hardboiled businessman, portraying himself as willing to face realities that effete professional politicians try to avoid. Recognising Jerusalem as capital, he said, is not only the “right thing to do” but it is simply to “acknowledge the obvious … [it] is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality”.
It’s an attitude that makes old diplomatic dances of predictable step and counter-step almost impossible. If you are doing what is scripted as a dignified waltz and your partner suddenly starts to break-dance, you are going to either have to find a new partner or else have a genuine heart-to-heart to resolve matters.
As his election against all odds showed, Trump is a master of disruptive politics. Prefacing the Jerusalem decision, Trump said: “I promised to look at the world’s challenges with open eyes and very fresh thinking. We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies of the past.”
Trump’s provocative decision on Jerusalem has great potential for disaster. On the other hand, the flipside of recklessness is courage. If his unconventional approach does unclog the Israeli-Palestinian impasse to any degree, Trump will have pulled of a major coup.
And he will no doubt double-up on recklessness for the next gamble.
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