RICHARD BUTLER. Jerusalem: US Foreign Policy begins at home.

Dec 11, 2017

In fulfilling a campaign promise made to what he discerned to be an important part of his base, Christian evangelicals and Jewish Americans, that is, to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Trump has: trashed all prior iterations of US policy; taken a position opposed by every other nation, except Israel; and, sunk all existing frameworks for a resolution of the Israel/Palestine problem. He was motivated by domestic political concerns but also by the growing US alignment with Saudi Arabia in the current power struggle in the Middle East.      

The nature and origins of the claim by both the Palestinians and the State of Israel, that Jerusalem is or should be their Capital are known in detail.

Importantly, when Israel was established in 1947, by a resolution of the UN General assembly, which entailed the partition of Palestine, Jerusalem was given a separate status; corpus separatum, in recognition of the extreme importance of it to Muslims, Jews and, Christians. It was hoped then that Jerusalem would be a place of peace. It is for this reason that in all subsequent negotiations designed to settle the borders and territory of Israel and Palestine, the question of the disposition of Jerusalem, has been set aside as the last of the final status issues to be agreed. Although never yet agreed, the outcome under negotiation has been that Israel’s capital should be the western part of the city and Palestine’s the eastern part.

Trump has now scuttled any such further consideration by declaring that the US recognizes all of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, without specifying the territorial extension of Jerusalem, which because of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land has been expanding. No reference was made to where the Palestinian capital would be, in the event of an agreement on a Palestinian State (the “two state” solution), but presumably it would be Ramallah. Obviously, this is not acceptable to the Palestinians, who currently find their access to the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem controlled by the Israelis. Al Aqsa is Islam’s third holiest site. .

Sites of importance to Christians are in both Palestine and Israel: Bethlehem is in Palestine, the Holy Sepulcher and the Way of the Cross are in Jerusalem and, Calvary is immediately outside the city wall. Under Trump’s plan, presumably the latter three would remain under Israeli control.

Leaving aside the obvious complexity and depth of feelings, and the substance of the issues involved in the Israel/Palestinian dispute, the deepest significance of Trump’s announcement is found elsewhere.

His removal of the end point of negotiations has rendered all preliminary issues irrelevant. To justify this he has claimed that all prior negotiations have been fruitless; that what he has done is merely recognize reality and he claims that by awarding the final prize to Israel, he has made all other issues; major territorial and communal claims easier to settle. The logic of this is so phony, that it is essential to look for the real motives, because the stated ones are absurd, incredible.

There are surely two evident motives; one domestic and the other, external.

First, all analyses of Trump’s first ten months in office,  show that his presidency is failing. His ratings in public opinion surveys are the worst of any comparable situation; his legislative record is one of continuing failure; his attempts to manipulate the public discourse, indeed reality itself in that discourse, are losing their potency; the investigations of him and his family and staff, is drawing ever closer to revealing possibly impeachable conduct or at least conduct which will be found unacceptable by a significant proportion of Americans; if he does succeed in getting his way, in the current consideration of both a new tax regime and the federal budget, this will reveal how much he has left behind middle and lower strata Americans, especially those who voted for him in the belief that he would relieve the “carnage” in America ( the word he used in his inaugural address).

So, he has reached for a staple in areas of the country which supported him; the religious communities. For them, both evangelical, fundamentalist Christians, who for reasons they find in their reading of the Bible, in particular the Old Testament, they identify Jerusalem as something like their future, eternal home. And, amongst Jewish Americans, although by no means all of them, but certainly key donors to his political coffers, his standing up for Israel was an easy bet.

On Trump and Israel, presumably he admires Netanyahu, personally, because he has succeeded in building a wall to keep Israel’s neighbors out.

Secondly, the obverse side of this pervasive Judeo-Christian influence in US domestic politics is the “other”, the Muslims, the Arabs and, we all know how flagrantly Trump has played this card. This introduces the international dimension to what he has decided on Jerusalem and Israel.

Trump’s first trip overseas was to Saudi Arabia. They awarded him their highest decoration and rewarded him with massive arms purchases from US corporations. He gave them, in return, silence on their actions in Yemen and human rights generally, but most importantly a commitment to their side of their deepening regional contest with Iran. Since then, the heavy-duty international politics being played out across the Middle East have become increasingly visible: Russia, Iran and Syria on the one side and Saudi Arabia and the US on the other. Turkey and Iraq are also players in this, but for now not in the front row, where at least Turkey would like to be.

The Shia- Sunni contest is sharpening. Trump is obsessed with Iran (shia). The Saudis (Sunni) are finding that very convenient. Where the next inflection points will be is not clear, especially now that Russia has captured the dominant role in determining the wash-up in Syria, but it may be that Saudi aspirations will be fulfilled if Trump takes further steps against Iran, such as in ditching the nuclear agreement with Iran. This would, of course, give the Saudis a rationale for advancing their own nuclear weapons programme which, there is reason to believe, would be their preference. Trump has said he would understand such a decision by them.

But wait, as Arabs, brothers to the Palestinian people, surely the Saudis will be outraged by Trump’s decision on Jerusalem; such an article of faith amongst Arab/Muslim peoples (of whom there are some 300 million ). It appears that its not so simple.

The Saudi and other Arab leaders will be concerned about reactions in the Arab street to Trump’s outrage, and for this reason they will express concern about the Jerusalem decision, but their vigilance over their own far deeper national interest will be far more important determinants of their actions. Tehran bulks far larger than Ramallah.

Besides, the Palestinian mess has gone on for far too long; the Palestinians have never been easy brothers; the Saudis will be confident that Trump who sees himself as the master of public relations, will comprehend their explanation that are bound to exercise some PR on the issue, as certainly Egypt will also display, but they will assess, almost certainly correctly, that Trump will understand where their hard interests lie.

And, because of the Iran anxieties, the Saudis and the Israelis are now in a new kind of dialogue. Who knows, Israel may already be the new silent partner in the US/Saudi alliance.

While there is fretful talk about the need to preserve the international “rules –based order”, and justifiably so, realpolitik; the determination of policy on the basis of national power and interests is back, in spades, in the Middle East, not to mention in virtually all other hot spots – North Asia, the Western Pacific, to mention just two such areas.

In the case of Trump and “America First”, an incredibly unoriginal proclamation, it appears that his determination of policy begins at home, where he was elected, amongst the people he believes achieved that for him, his much touted base, of whom it is not unkind to posit that many of them they may not be able to find almost any place in the Middle East on a map, other than Israel, which of course, is in the Bible.

The bloke in charge of the “rules based system”, Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, has said he’s worried. With good cause.

Richard Butler AC, former Ambassador to the UN, Head of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq, Diplomat in Residence, Council on Foreign Relations, New York


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