Israelis today are feeling the love from Washington and bracing themselves for trouble. As President Donald Trump announces practical steps towards moving the U.S. Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he breaks with precedent in overwhelmingly embracing the Israeli government narrative of Jerusalem’s status. Israel’s security establishment is preparing to contain the fallout. Given Palestinian outrage and the Israeli leadership’s predilection for provocation, over reaction, and collective punishment of Palestinians, this could get ugly. As the veteran Israeli commentator Orly Azulai notes in Israel’s leading circulation daily Yediot, “This is not a gift that shows affection for Israel … this is a powder keg being left on our doorstep … we are the ones that will pay the price.” Even if events do not immediately spiral out of control, the president’s announcement will have heightened tensions and sown the seeds for future instability.
That a speech initiated by the White House, not demanded by events, had to include a call for calm itself speaks volumes.
The Jerusalem announcement from Washington needs to be kept in perspective. The proximate cause of insecurity and violations of human rights and international law, the actual problem in other words, is Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians on the ground not the verbal hot air from Washington. But the former is sustained and given protective cover by the latter.
It is not at all clear that this U.S. initiative has been driven by Israel’s rightist government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is of course not ideologically opposed to what the president is doing or saying, he will welcome it and declare victory. Trump’s words will also domestically empower Netanyahu at a moment of unprecedented weakness, born of the multiple corruption investigations being conducted against him alongside the heavy handed, legislatively problematic and borderline authoritarian manner of his response. But Trump’s announcement is not risk-free and the celebrations on the Israeli side of Jerusalem may prove to be hollow.
To be clear, Trump is not endangering his allies in Israel to the same degree as he is with the South Koreans. A pattern though may be emerging—this president could pose more of a threat to his allies than his adversaries.
This presidential initiative may well be the product of the hawkish, even extremist pro-Israel sympathies of his closest confidantes. It may also be designed to test how much regional leeway (especially regarding Israel) he can now claim given the extent the White House has deepened ties with certain Arab states, and in particular Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In the most farfetched interpretations of this move, it has even been claimed that this lunge towards the Israeli side on Jerusalem can be used to create leverage and be constructively deployed if and when an American peace plan is presented. That is hogwash. If true, it displays a terrifying ignorance of the issues involved, the centrality of Jerusalem and the human dynamics of maintaining confidence and relationships in any mediation and peacemaking effort.
To understand the ‘why’ and the ‘why now’ of this move, one is probably better advised to visit the Breitbart website, which is proudly proclaiming ‘hallelujah’ in a banner homepage headline. Not unusually for American engagement on this issue, this is probably more about the mid-West than the mid-East. Trump’s overall political strategy has been all about keeping the Republican Party and Congress on board by solidifying support within his own domestic political base. This move will play well, very well, with a large swathe of the dispensationalist Evangelical Christian community as well as with the very small cohort of conservative American Jewish support he carries, especially the subset of that cohort known as Sheldon Adelson.
The question many experts have been pondering is how these considerations have trumped the traditional American national security interest argument whereby the price America pays for its indulgence of Israeli occupation practices, and its perpetuation of a grievance felt by Muslims and Arabs regarding Palestine, needs to be managed, not exacerbated. American policy on Israel/Palestine is a gift to radicalisation, and is consistently part of the extremist recruitment narrative from Bin Laden down.
CENTCOM chiefs have frequently and openly testified to how the handling of this issue can undermine American forces and security in the region and beyond. That entire trend is intensified when the focus becomes more narrowly that of Jerusalem.
However, for those arguments to have carried the day, one has to assume that this White House agrees with the premise that U.S. interests are best served by seeking to heal and improve relations with the Muslim world. But if your own political project and the project for America is to polarize, to deepen divisions, and especially to demonize Muslims and perhaps even use that clash to achieve other domestic political transformations then you might have an interest in fomenting trouble, in generating demonstrations where for instance American flags may be burned.