Commentary: Why Jerusalem policy makes art of the deal hard for Trump

  • Richard Sindelar
  • Special to the American-Statesman
3:26 p.m Friday, Dec. 15, 2017 Opinion
Nasser Nasser
Palestinian protesters burn an image of President Trump during clashes with Israeli troops following protests against Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday.

Fifty years ago, former U.S. Consul General to Jerusalem, Evan Wilson, penned a memoire entitled “Jerusalem: Key to Peace,” in which he argued the multifaceted reasons why that city’s status will ultimately determine whether a Palestinian-Israeli peace is attainable.

The closest the U.S. ever came to achieving peace — the Barak-Arafat negotiations in the twilight of President Clinton’s administration — were derailed in the end in large part over the Jerusalem question. Jerusalem remains today still an essential part of any achievable peace.

So, why President Trump’s shift in policy now? The art of the deal is for each party to gain some interests that make a deal worthwhile. Those looking for the benefits to the U.S. or the peace process from the premature recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will find none.

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In announcing U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the only country to so declare, President Trump argued “it is the right thing to do,” would advance U.S. interests in the Middle East, and the Arab-Israeli peace process itself. It will do none of those things. Indeed, it was the wrong action on many levels: Jared Kushner’s peace mission will be vastly complicated; U.S. influence will be diminished for years to come among Middle Eastern nations; and violent, potentially bloody, protests have already begun.

Even the domestic U.S. political scene offers little advantage. With 71 percent of American Jews having voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and no consensus among American Jewish leaders themselves about the best avenues toward peace, there is no “Jewish base” to which the president can be playing. Even most evangelicals must wonder why the president would denominate only one of the three great religions to have suzerainty over a city equally holy to Christians and Muslims as well.

Recognition of Jerusalem, then, can only be seen as almost entirely a “thank you” to Sheldon Adelson for his massive financial support of Trump’s campaign, and Republican causes generally, and nothing more. Adelson has furiously ridden the hobby horse of Jerusalem since Trump’s 2016 election, constantly pushing him to declare U.S. recognition of that city as Israel’s capital. Ever mindful of needed campaign funds for 2018 and 2020, Trump apparently felt he had to make good on the only deal about which he really cared: his own Las Vegas side deal with his main financial backer.

On another level, Trump is largely correct that his policy shift is in most ways a simple bow to reality, in that Jewish West Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital since soon after the founding of the state. U.S. Embassy officials for years have scurried back and forth from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on a daily basis for talks on all manner of issues, and an apartment is maintained in a West Jerusalem hotel for overnight visits by embassy officers.

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In the short run, Arab reaction will largely follow the split personality of the region: Arab leaders will remonstrate against the new policy but take little concrete action. But in the streets, violence and terror attacks are virtually inevitable, directed against Israelis generally, as well as U.S. interests and embassies. As can easily come to pass in the long history of Palestine, the announcement may engender a new intifada and Hamas rocket attacks, with the inevitable consequences for everyone.

This new administration policy also inevitably raises the U.S. homeland’s profile among the many Middle East terror groups; it is certain that each group is already examining how an attack can be carried out directly on U.S. soil as payback within the next six months or so.

Sometimes, reality is not a nice thing — and adhering to interim diplomatic niceties to bridge differences is the better policy.

Sindelar served in Jerusalem as a U.S. Vice Consul in the 1970s, and now teaches Middle East studies at the University of St. Thomas.

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