America’s risky plan to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will likely create new problems in the Middle East.
In principle, there are two ways of handling foreign policy. The mallet method, in which one side thoughtlessly tries to bend the other to its will. The other method consists in conducting fair negotiations and cleverly balancing everyone’s interests. Donald Trump clearly could not care less about balancing interests. The only foreign policy deal he is happy with is one that makes him feel like he has won. He is completely indifferent to the others. In his world, only the law of the strongest matters.
The same goes for his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy there. During the presidential election campaign, he boasted that he would accomplish the “ultimate [peace] deal” for the Middle East. Now his plan is clear: Along with his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he is going to put the Palestinians under pressure. As a result, the latter is supposed to meekly accept the peace deal – under conditions set by Trump and Netanyahu. There is no other way to interpret this signal.
That is not what a clever, well-thought-out strategy looks like. Up until the point that Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the consensus among most peace mediators was that the status and future of Jerusalem, the most delicate of all delicate issues, could only be settled as part of a definitive peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. Trump has now ended that consensus.
He invents facts in Israel’s favor, even though he hides this behind unctuous peace rhetoric, and in fact, the U.S. Embassy will likely remain in Tel Aviv quite a while. In Washington, they define this new policy as the acknowledgment of “reality,” as Israel has been placing all its important political institutions on the west side of the city for years. The other reality, which consists of Palestinians also asserting claims to Jerusalem, is simply dismissed.
Trump and Netanyahu feel like they are in a good position because they are building an axis with important advocates for the Palestinians, like Saudi Arabia or Jordan, against their common enemy, Iran. In particular, the Saudis can, and are supposed to, help persuade the Palestinians to make concessions.
Thus, Trump – once again – is only acting based on shortsighted convenience. During the presidential campaign, he promised his supporters to move the embassy. Pro-Israel Jewish groups in the U.S. see this step as being overdue. It is also important to many evangelical Trump voters in the South who support Israel. Trump wants to please all of them so that they will keep supporting him, and now they will.
The US Snubs Important Partners
Trump clearly does not care what others think about this unilateral step. The concerns and warnings from almost all European partners about an escalation of the conflict were simply ignored. The same goes for the concerns and wishes of the Palestinians. The U.S. is thus snubbing important partners and abandoning its important role as an honest mediator. In the region, all those who felt that Americans were not to be trusted will feel validated. Those who are eternally angry in the Islamic world are going to be delighted; such a confrontational policy will bring them more supporters. In the Middle East, pressure has unfortunately only ever resulted in one thing: counterpressure.
All of this does not mean that Trump and Netanyahu and their mallet method may not eventually achieve some sort of agreement with the Palestinians. That is not out of the question. However, that would only constitute “some sort” of agreement; this is certainly not the way to bring about lasting peace.