Spearhead Analysis – 26.12.2017
By Syed Murtaza Zaidi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
On December 6, 2017, in an address to the American public, President Donald Trump announced his intentions to finally implement the Jerusalem Embassy Act and formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In doing so, he set off a series of events that could have a long lasting impact on the future stability of the Middle East, as well as the US’s reputation and influence in Muslim majority nations around the world.
The Jerusalem Embassy Act was a US law passed in 1995, that stipulated that the government would make preparations to move their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, officially recognizing the latter as the capital city of Israel. However, keeping in mind the precarious political situation in the Middle East, a provision was added to the law that gave the executive branch of the government authority to suspend this decision for a period of up to six months, by which time the decision could be reviewed once again.
In the twenty odd years since the law has been passed, every subsequent President, from Clinton, to Obama, has used this provision bi-annually to postpone the implementation of the Jerusalem Embassy Act. Each President faced with this decision determined that any change in US policy regarding this complex and contentious matter would result in rising tensions in the Middle East, and even prompt Arab countries or Islamic extremist factions to rise up and challenge the state of Israel. The US government was also reluctant to aggravate their many allies in the Middle East, and didn’t want to risk getting involved in yet another long and arduous war in the region. President Trump however, had different ideas.
The President made his speech in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House and opened his remarks by saying that “When I came into office, I promised to look at the world’s challenges with open eyes and very fresh thinking” and that “old challenges demand new approaches”. He then highlighted his efforts in finding a “new approach to (the) conflict between Israel and the Palestinians” and brought attention to the Jerusalem Embassy Act.
He highlighted the failure of previous Presidents in implementing this law and added that “after more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result”. It was then he stated his intentions of fulfilling one of his major campaign promises and “officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel”.
Trump pointed to the status of Israel as “one of the most successful democracies in the world” where “Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and people of all faiths are free to live and worship according to their conscience and according to their beliefs” as one of the main reasons why they deserved to call Jerusalem their capital, hailing the move as “the right thing to do”. He also accepted the fact that there would be “disagreement and dissent regarding this announcement. But we are confident that ultimately, as we work through these disagreements, we will arrive at a peace and a place far greater in understanding and cooperation”.
When President Trump said “there will, of course, be disagreement and dissent regarding this announcement”, he perhaps did not imagine how swiftly and vociferously people would make their dissent known. Within hours, protesters from across the globe had taken to the streets and social media to voice their displeasure, while heads of states from around the world criticized Trump’s handling of the situation. Many accused him of derailing the years long attempts at finding a peaceful resolution to the problem, and urged him to reconsider his decision before the Middle East became more destabilized than ever before.
The reaction to the announcement was quite mixed, within the US. While many senators, and Jewish organizations wholeheartedly supported the decision, others urged caution and panned the timing of the move. Brooklyn State Assemblyman Dov Hikind thought that the President was fixing “an injustice” and that this was a “great moment for the United States” and “for the world where America is saying, ‘we will not be intimidated.’”
On the other hand, Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Reform Jewish Movement encapsulated the majority view by saying that even though he agreed with the decision to move the capital of Israel to Jerusalem, he couldn’t support the decision at this time as it was “absent a comprehensive plan for a peace process,” and that the decision was “all but certain to exacerbate the conflict (in the region)”. Congressman Jerrold Nadler was more even more disparaging in his views, stating that the “Administration has carelessly risked inflaming tensions in the region, as well as placing U.S. diplomatic and military personnel in harm’s way. Like so much of the President’s foreign policy making, this hasty announcement was a media ploy devoid of substance and without concern for American, Israeli, or international security interests”.
The announcement was almost universally panned in Europe, with many of the US’s closest allies also expressing their displeasure. British Prime Minister, Theresa May, called the move “unhelpful in terms of the prospects for peace in the region” and stated that the British government’s position on the matter was “clear and long-standing: it should be determined in a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and Jerusalem should ultimately be the shared capital of the Israeli and Palestinian states. In line with relevant security council resolutions, we regard East Jerusalem as part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted as saying that the “German government does not support this position, because the status of Jerusalem is to be resolved in the framework of a two-state solution,”, while French President Macron called it a regrettable decision that “France does not approve of” and added that it went against “international law and all the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council,”. He further said that “the status of Jerusalem is a question of international security that concerns the entire international community” and that a resolution could only be found under the watchful eye of the United Nations, and with both the Israelis and Palestinians willing to work together.
In Turkey, the announcement led to a number of protests, and some very harsh words from President Erdogan himself, who called Jerusalem “a red line for Muslims,” and implored the US to not go through with this decision. Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim called the plan “unlawful” and predicted that there would be “irreversible consequences” in the region as a result.
Representing the EU, vice president of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini, also waded into the debate and expressed serious concern for the precedent this move would set. She stated that “the EU position remains unchanged,” and that the “aspirations of both parties must be fulfilled, and a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states.”
Even Pope Francis raised concerns over this move, stating that “I cannot remain silent about my deep concern for the situation that has developed in recent days,”. He then went on to say that “Jerusalem is a unique city, (which is) sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, where the Holy Places for the respective religions are venerated, and it has a special vocation to peace.” He prayed that “such identity be preserved and strengthened for the benefit of the Holy Land, the Middle East and the entire world, and that wisdom and prudence prevail, to avoid adding new elements of tension in a world already shaken and scarred by many cruel conflicts.”
As expected, the news of USA’s acceptance of Jerusalem as the new capital of Israel was most strongly felt in Muslim majority nations around the world, particularly in the Middle East. All across the region protesters burned the flags of Israel and the US, while their leaders warned of dire consequences in the coming days, if the decision was not repealed.
Saudi King Salman, a close US ally in the region warned that “any American announcement regarding the situation of Jerusalem prior to reaching a permanent settlement will harm peace talks and increase tensions in the area” and that “such a dangerous step is likely to inflame the passions of Muslims around the world due to the great status of Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa mosque”.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul-Gheit also condemned the move, and urged the US to avoid taking any steps that disturbed the peace in the region, and reminded them that there would be no solution without the approval of the UN. These warnings were repeated by Palestinian President Abbas, as well as by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who again advised the US to take back its decision. President Abbas stated that unless the US reconsidered its position, “we (Palestinians) shall not accept any role for the United States in the peace process, (as) they have proven their full bias in favor of Israel”.
In a meeting held one day before President Trump’s announcement, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) had warned the US that the Islamic world would not stand for any change in the status of Jerusalem and that if the US continued with its plan of accepting the holy city as the capital of Israel, then these moves would be construed as “hostile”. The 57-members of the OIC agreed that any change in the status of Jerusalem would be interpreted as “naked aggression” against the Muslim world, and that such “dangerous measures would have repercussions” across the region.
After the US failed to meet their demands, the OIC declared that they would now formally recognize the State of Palestine and would consider East Jerusalem as its occupied capital, and urged the world at large to follow in their lead.
While Trump’s decision has, for the most part, been criticized as being immature and not well thought out by representatives of most countries around the world, there are still some who have chosen to remain neutral or silent on the issue.
India is one such country who has taken quite a muted and impartial stance on the subject. Under Prime Minister Modi’s tutelage, India has seen its relationship with both the US and Israel improve drastically in recent years and that is perhaps the reason why the statement released by the Indian foreign ministry was dubbed vague and ineffectual. It stated that “India’s position on Palestine is independent and consistent. It is shaped by our views and interests, and not determined by any third country”. However, the Indian government did make their position clear over the next week, when they decided to support a motion in the UN, to reject the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s official capital.
The US decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital prompted the UN to call an emergency meeting of all its 193 member states on the 21st of December. A motion tabled by Yemen and Turkey, and co-sponsored by other members of the OIC, including Pakistan, asked the UN member states to officially reject the new stance taken by the Trump administration and vote against their decision.
Even though the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, warned her fellow envoys that “the president will be watching this vote carefully and has requested I report back on those countries who voted against us”; her thinly veiled threat were mostly ignored and the motion passed with a resounding majority. Of the total 193 nations, 128 voted for the motion, while 9 voted against it and 35 chose to abstain from voting. Two of the major countries to abstain from voting were Canada and Australia, who have maintained an impartial stance on the issue from the very beginning, but have stated previously that they have no desire to follow in President Trump’s footsteps, and move their embassies to Israel as well.
There is no precedence for the implicit threat held out by the US in the UN. The response should signal to the US that it cannot have its own way always. From President Trump’s point of view, the timing of the Jerusalem announcement was good. The Middle East is in disarray and turmoil. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies have targeted Qatar which is resisting. An alliance of sorts is building up against Iran and some Arab countries have improved their ties with Israel. Perhaps the US was banking on a muted response from a divided Muslim world?
Donald Trump’s tenure in office has been beset with difficulties and political scandals. However, in retrospect, it seems his handling of the Jerusalem problem might be his biggest error yet. With a conundrum as complicated as this one, it was surprising that Trump decided to make this move in his very first year in charge, without any real long term plan for appeasing the understandably irate Palestinians, as well as the millions of Muslims worldwide.
It was also imprudent of him to move ahead with his plans without consulting with his Allies in Europe and the UN, or listen to the majority consensus and repeal his decision. Instead, since the vote in the UN General Assembly, Trump has resorted to threatening any country that opposed him with sanctions and has also hinted at cutting down on US funding for the UN as well.
These moves contribute in creating an unstable and precarious environment in the Middle East, and in generating an anti-Islam message, that can lead to rising extremist views and a needless abhorrence for the West. If a working solution to the problem is to be found, it cannot proceed without the presence, and a unanimous agreement, between both the Palestinians, and the Israelis.