Analysis

Trump Upended the Entire History of Middle East Diplomacy - and Delivered Netanyahu's Ultimate Coup

Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital is all about painting himself as more courageous than his predecessors, and to hell with the potential consequences for the region's people

Protesters chant slogans and wave Palestinian flags during a demonstration following Trump's speech on Jerusalem in Istanbul, Turkey, December 6, 2017.
Protesters chant slogans and wave Palestinian flags during a demonstration following Trump's speech on Jerusalem in Istanbul, Turkey, December 6, 2017. OZAN KOSE/AFP

The Jerusalem Embassy Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1995, was a right-wing ambush against both the Clinton administration and the Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Neither Clinton or Rabin, then fully invested in the Oslo Accords, were interested in allowing the nuclear issue of Jerusalem to intrude on the negotiations with the Palestinians at that stage.

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It was an attempt by the leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his allies in Washington to derail Oslo. Rabin, as Israel’s leader and the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who had commanded the capture of the East Jerusalem in 1967, had no choice but to outwardly support the act, which passed overwhelmingly in Congress, though he raged behind closed doors at Netanyahu’s maneuver. Clinton then signed a waiver postponing the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem every six months for national security reasons – as would his successors in the Oval Office.

Twenty-two years after lobbying behind the scenes for the Jerusalem Embassy Act, Netanyahu finally has a president in the White House who is willing to turn it into actual American policy. Every element of Donald Trump’s proclamation recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel confirmed to Netanyahu’s standard talking points. It was heavy on the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, “established in ancient times,” and on Israel as “one of the most successful democracies in the world.” It barely contained an oblique reference to any Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, or indeed a reference to a Palestinian state, beyond tentative support of the two-state solution “if agreed to by both sides.”

Trump spoke at length of his desire of bringing peace to the two nations, but failed to mention the 1967 borders, the settlements, the Palestinian refugees or any other of the main obstacles that have bedeviled the diplomatic process for decades. It was indeed “a new approach to the conflict,” as he said at the start of his speech. He jettisoned just about every orthodoxy of the peace process, embraced the Netanyahu approach and upended the entire history of Middle East diplomacy.

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a statement on Jerusalem from the White House in Washington as Vice President Mike Pence looks on, December 6, 2017.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP

One day, when books are written on the inner machinations of the Trump administration, it will be fascinating to find out just how much of an input Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer – Netanyahu’s closest aide and without a doubt the diplomat in Washington with the best access to this White House – had in Trump’s proclamation. One thing is certain: Even if Dermer had been allowed to write the whole thing, it is hard to see how he could have come up with a text that would have been more to the liking of his boss.

The Trump proclamation is not just a diplomatic coup for Netanyahu, but it is a political one as well. Just like Rabin couldn’t openly criticize the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995, despite his fears that it could sabotage negotiations with the Palestinians, today Netanyahu’s main challengers, Labor leader Avi Gabby and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, both have to sing the praises of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem. Whether they like it or not, this also means praising Netanyahu. Until further notice, the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister are now connected at the hip.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, now one of Netanyahu’s staunchest allies, wanted to organize dancing in Safra Square outside of City Hall. He spoke of recreating the celebratory scenes from 70 years ago following the United Nations vote on November 29, 1947, to partition British Mandate Palestine. Luckily for him, the heavy rain gave him an excuse to abandon the plan, as it is doubtful whether anyone would have turned up.

Jerusalemites, regardless of their political persuasions, are much more level-headed than that and know that there is no historical comparison between the two events. But Barkat’s sycophancy toward both Netanyahu and Trump is telling. Whether or not Trump’s proclamation leads to an outbreak of violence in Jerusalem or impacts on the slim chances of achieving peace in the foreseeable future is immaterial to Netanyahu, Trump and their cheerleaders.

Understandably, many Israelis were uplifted by the fact that for the first time, a major world power has recognized their capital. But as far as Trump and Netanyahu were concerned, the proclamation was all about domestic politics. It allowed Trump to present himself as more courageous than his presidential predecessors and was an easy way to deliver on one of his reckless election promises – and to the hell with the potential consequences for the people of the region. For Netanyahu, it was further proof that he is the undisputed master of Israel’s foreign relations, the first prime minister in Israel’s history who has received recognition for David Ben-Gurion’s decision, 68 years ago next week, to make Jerusalem the capital of Israel.