Analysis

On Jerusalem, Trump Delivers a Kick in the Butt – but to Whom?

The U.S. president is right to say that the actions of his predecessors didn’t lead Israel and the Palestinians any closer to peace. But is he really the right person to foment change?

A Palestinian painting over a mural of U.S. President Donald Trump during a protest in Bethlehem, West Bank, December 7, 2017.
AP/Nasser Shiyoukhi

The most interesting comment in U.S. President Donald Trump’s speech on Wednesday was that the declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital “marks the beginning of a new approach to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.” The motivation for the declaration is not Trump’s desire to change the status of Jerusalem, but his attempt to do things differently to his predecessors – to break patterns and think outside the box.

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Trump is an unusual person, unpredictable, someone whose diplomatic maneuvers are clumsy. His language is not “staged,” so the notion that he might think outside the box might frighten some people. There is a tendency to want Trump to stay very firmly within the box, in the hope that this box remains the framework that protects the world from his crazed caprices. Well, this is not going to happen.

At the outset of his speech, Trump reminded everyone that when he assumed office, he promised to look at global challenges with fresh eyes and a new approach. That’s true. He did promise that, and he’s keeping his word.

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His thinking is refreshing, especially if you consider the alternative. At least we’ve been spared the sight of Hillary Clinton re-signing that U.S. Embassy waiver, delaying by another six months the implementation of a Congress resolution from over 20 years ago. We’ve been spared the righteous look on her face, which expresses that full and sincere commitment to a just solution, mouthing all the right words that supporters of peace so love to hear – and then nothing happening for another four years.

Trump is right in saying that for 20 years all his predecessors postponed the decision to move the U.S. Embassy, out of the belief that delaying it would advance the cause of peace. He was right in saying that “after more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement.” So why continue insisting on a mode of action that isn’t yielding progress? Just because it sounds nice to people who dream of peace?

Trump’s words are logical: “We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies of the past.” Indeed, if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs anything, it’s a kick in the butt – someone who will shake the old paradigms if only to reexamine their current relevance.

However, there’s something simplistic about Trump believing that if he does the opposite of what his predecessors did, he’ll get the opposite result. In other words, it’s true that for over 20 years other presidents delayed the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and that didn’t result in advancing peace. But that doesn’t mean transferring the embassy will therefore bring peace closer.

By the same token, this move could inflame the Middle East. Obviously, you can’t rule out the possibility that a general conflagration could eventually lead to calm, followed by better days. But are Israelis and Palestinians willing to embark on this dangerous adventure and pay the high price it will cost?

When reality is stuck after so many years of diplomatic stalemate, it’s tempting to imagine someone arriving and shaking things up, accelerating time and rousing the silent majority – just so that something changes. Revolutionaries are willing to help reality change, to deliberately create action. Trump is marketing himself as someone like that, but is he really that person? More importantly, are we? Are we ready and willing to change, or do we go with Trump’s revolutionary approach, right up to the point when the demand for change reaches our own doorstep?

We can only hope he’s administered a much-needed kick in the butt to the conflict, and not just kicking the Palestinians in the ass.