Analysis

Trump's Jerusalem Decision: Arab World Has Only One Way to Fight It

Arab countries were quick to launch a war of words on the American president's Jerusalem declaration, but there's very little room for them to maneuver diplomatically

Trump Jerusalem
Fareed Khan/AP

U.S. President Donald Trump’s dramatic performance, in which he announced he would move the American embassy to Jerusalem, set off a wave of denunciations, warnings and threats from one end of the Middle East to the other this week.

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to cut off Turkey’s ties with Israel. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital “will open the gates of hell on the West,” warned Sheikh al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb. “The United States can no longer be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Saeb Erekat, stating that from now on the struggle will focus on establishing a one-nation state.

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The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has called an emergency meeting next week of all the Islamic states to examine ways to act against the decision, even though it changed nothing regarding the peace process, which has been comatose since long before Trump’s statement. Words appear to be the only ammunition the Arab and Muslim leaders have at the moment to display the little solidarity they still have with one another.

Leaders and representatives of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation member states pose for a group photo during the Kazakhstan Summit summit, in Astana, Kazakhstan September 10, 2017.
HANDOUT / Reuters

From the Arab states’ perspective, Trump’s announcement hasn’t changed anything in Jerusalem’s status. “Egypt regrets Trump’s decision,” President Sissi said.

“Although the decision doesn’t change anything and doesn’t infringe on the basic, protected rights of the Palestinian people in Jerusalem and the occupied territories it represents a major retreat in the efforts to advance peace,” the Saudi Royal Palace stated. The decision won’t change anything in the terms of the Arab peace initiative, which is an integral basis to any negotiation. If a religious war breaks out it won’t be because of Trump’s announcement but because of another showy visit of Israeli politicians on the Temple Mount.

The extreme scenario that Egypt and Jordan cut off diplomatic relations with Israel is not realistic. Israel and Egypt’s relations are based on military and intelligence interests that are not related to the Palestinian issue or Jerusalem’s status. Sisi’s response that “recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will complicate the peace process” is at most lip service to the Arab zeitgeist. Sisi cares more about the Palestinian reconciliation than the peace process. The reconciliation among the Palestinians can ensure quiet on the Gaza-Sinai border and rid Egypt of the disgrace of the siege on Gaza. Sisi isn’t so naive as to think that Jerusalem’s status alone could revive or kill the peace process.

A few noisy demonstrations might take place in Jordan and voices have already been heard in the parliament to cut off relations with Israel. But King Abdullah has good reasons to continue military cooperation with Israel, which sees eye-to-eye with him on the Iranian threat on the monarchy’s Syrian border. Both Egypt and Jordan understand that punishing Trump by severing ties with Israel could act as a boomerang.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 2nd right, accompanied by his wife Emine, right, pwith Jordan's King Abdullah II, 2nd left and his wife Queen Rania, left, in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017
Kayhan Ozer / AP

Erdogan’s actions are harder to predict. Turkey’s president has become a major opponent to anything Trump does. Like one caught in the tentacles of a scuttlefish, Erdogan is wriggling between his demand that the United States extradite Fethullah Gulen, the leader of the rival religious movement whom he accuses of initiating the abortive coup against him in July 2016, and the trial in New York of Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab.

Zarrab has already incriminated the former Turkish economy minister and senior Turkish bank officials of money laundering and bypassing the sanctions on Iran. His testimony could be destructive to Erdogan if he submits documents tying the president’s family to defrauding the United States.

Also, Erdogan is waging an all-out war against American assistance to the Syrian Kurds, who are fighting successfully against the Islamic State. Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is therefore an excellent opportunity for Erdogan to conduct his war against Trump under cover of a Muslim consensus. Whether he cuts off ties with Israel depends on the messages he receives from Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Trump was very careful not to anger the Muslims in his announcement, emphasizing that the Temple Mount’s status would remain the same. But the Arab and Muslim response stems from the spirit of the statement and the very recognition of Jerusalem, which runs counter to the international convention of the past 70 years. So the next arena could move to the UN General Assembly and Security Council. The question is whether there will be enough states to isolate the United States and render Trump’s decision void.

Arab leaders and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are trying to persuade states around the world to stick to the international position, not to recognize Jerusalem and not to move their embassies to it. This is an uphill struggle because the United States can veto any Security Council resolution, while the General Assembly resolutions don’t have teeth.

The Arab states can try to persuade states like Britain, France, Germany and Russia as well as Scandinavian and South American countries to oppose Trump’s decision. Most of these nations have already expressed their objection. Israel will have a problem if only marginal states like Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, its new “friends,” and the Philippines, whose murderous president has already announced he would move the embassy to Jerusalem, will wave Israel’s flag in the capital.

The Arabs’ helplessness in view of Trump’s announcement arises from the circumstances that developed in the Middle East since the Arab Spring. New coalitions have been formed between Arab states and the powerful nations; Arab states fight against other Arab states or boycott them. Iran poses a new threat to them, greater even than the terror organizations. States that once led diplomatic battles like Egypt, Iraq and Syria can no longer dictate moves, while the new leader, Saudi Arabia, suffered one failure after another every time it tried to dictate strategic moves to sister states.

A emergency Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo, following Trump's controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. December 9, 2017
MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / AFP

Russia has pushed the United States into a corner, European states are happy to observe from the sidelines, making comments as though they were fans and the United States is blatantly ignoring demands of important leaders like the Saudi king, the Egyptian president and the Jordanian king, all of whom are close allies of Washington. Iran naturally denounced Trump’s statement, and can now look gleefully at the American contempt for Iran’s Arab rivals, first and foremost Saudi Arabia.

The irony is that despite the anger with Trump, the Arab states and most Muslim states will continue to see the United States as a vital ally to preserve their interests, while the Israeli Palestinian conflict will remain a subject for dinner party talks and go on feeding the usual narratives.