President Trump’s announcement recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and asking that the US Embassy in Israel be moved there from Tel Aviv may be upsetting for many, but it is no surprise.
It is not a surprise for several reasons.
A long-standing possibility
First, the inception of Israel in 1948, which was already half of Jerusalem (West) with the Jewish State, was called the capital although, technically, Tel Aviv served as the government headquarters including official residences of many of the country’s officials and foreign embassies.
Second, since the occupation of West Bank in 1967, Israel had been in virtual control of Eastern Jerusalem, controlling movement of Palestinians from East to West -- as in the case of their movement from West Bank into Israel. The Palestinian Authority had been claiming East Jerusalem as part of the Palestinian Territory and been hoping to establish Palestinian capital in that part.
The third reason why Trump’s announcement is not a surprise is that the decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (West) is not his own. He is only reinforcing a decision made by US Congress as early as 1995 to move the embassy to Jerusalem, fulfilling an Israeli request since 1980.
However, the US Government had been postponing implementation of that decision with a presidential waiver every six months since the US Congress passed that law. What Trump did this time is grandstanding the 1995 US Congress decision to move US embassy to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Was Donald Trump simply fulfilling a campaign promise to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and move US embassy there or is there something beyond that promise?
There was nothing new in the announcement, as it is simply a reiteration of a US Congress decision made two decades ago. What is new, however, is that this is the first time a POTUS has publicly acknowledged Jerusalem, a divided city, as Israel’s capital defying advice and caution from his advisers and allies from abroad including some staunch Arab friends.
Why spark another matchstick in the burning ambers of Palestinian strife with Israel?
President Clinton had declined to sign the 1995 US Congress decision stating that it would hurt the Palestine peace process, although the decision was passed as law later because of its support by the majority in the Congress that time. But, since then each president had signed a waiver to its implementation. Ironically, even President Trump signed the waiver simultaneously with his announcement proclaiming Jerusalem as Israeli capital leading to a zero sum game in this round.
The most puzzling question about the POTUS’ latest action is: Why spark another matchstick in the burning ambers of Palestinian strife with Israel, and why further alienate a region and a community that are disgruntled against the West and US in particular? Simply satisfying a campaign promise does not explain a whole lot.
Trump had many other campaign promises that he has yet to deliver such as building the Mexican wall, ripping up North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), bringing back jobs to coal miners, and many others. He has yet to fulfill many of his promises on domestic legislation in health care repeal, taxation overhaul, and immigration.
So, why should he focus on what maybe of least of importance to his constituents such as the location of Israel capital or the US embassy in Israel?
There are many observations and reactions to this latest Trump salvo in international relations.
To the supporters of President Trump, his pronouncement last week is recognition of reality. Israel formally passed a law declaring Jerusalem as its capital in 1980. Although only a few countries followed suit recognising Jerusalem as Israeli’s capital, no country has moved its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv -- including the USA because of the dispute between Palestine and Israel over the city’s ownership.
About 60% of Jerusalem’s population is Jewish (mostly in West) and 40% are Muslims and Christians (mostly In East). The city is home to the Knesset (Israeli parliament), the Supreme Court, the Bank of Israel, the National Headquarters of the Israel Police, and the official residences of the president and prime minister, the Cabinet, and all ministries (except for the Ministry of Defense). Therefore, supporters of this move say that what Trump did was to acknowledge this reality.
The second group of people is those who are seriously aggrieved by this announcement and resent it. A vast majority worldwide deplores this decision and considers this announcement as not only ill-advised but also one that makes the prospect of peace unattainable.
Although, US administration officials argue that this pragmatic decision will help the peace process (in an oxymoronic way), others contend that this will not only ignite further agitation and violence in the area, but will also give the extremist elements in the Middle East such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda a handle to promote their appeal to the middle eastern and other Muslim nations.
The third set consists of people who are analysing the timing of this decision, say that the prime motivation for Trump in making this grandiose announcement is not to appease his core group of supporters (after all, he is not facing a re-election, at least not yet), or Israel. This is not to placate even the Republican Congress.
But, this is to deflect attention from him and his immediate family who continue to remain an object of interest for the ongoing FBI Special Counsel’s probe into Russian connection in the last presidential elections.
The most recent admission of guilt of lying by former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn in the Russian investigation, and strong hints of others in Trump’s presidential campaign team (including his son and son-in-law) are causes of serious concern to him. The more people can be diverted away from these emerging issues better off he is, at least for the time being.
Any or all of the above can be used to explain why Trump made his announcement, but what is of paramount importance is the immediate and short term effect of this announcement.
As it is, the Palestinians and citizens of other Arab and Muslim countries have taken to the street to express their resentment. But there is nothing new in these agitations. What remains to be seen is the ability of the critics of US decision to challenge the US argument that it helps peace process.
Will the Arab countries stand together and reason with the US to restore the seriously fractured peace process in the inflamed region?
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the USA.