Donald Trump’s announcement, on recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the US Embassy to the Holy City, appeared, at least on the surface, chiefly ceremonial.
His message provided no specifics on how it might bring peace to the Middle East and seemed aimed at appeasing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and supporters who voted him into office.
But no ceremony can escape the very real, negative consequences that could transpire as a result of the shift in longstanding US policy, including a complete delegitimization of the US’s role in peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, regional instability, and loss of key Arab and Muslim allies.
“While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering,” Trump said in a speech Wednesday afternoon.
But away from the public eye, he did the exact opposite. Trump quietly followed the example of recent US presidents and signed a waiver to keep the US Embassy in Tel Aviv for the next six months. And he will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future, since an embassy move could take years.
So why the hullaballoo? Perhaps Trump thought the decision would be the best of both worlds — tough talk with little sacrifice and a means to support Israel and tacitly challenge Iran, much like his one off, unsuccessful airstrike in Syria.
However, international leaders are right to be concerned. This announcement essentially legitimizes Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, which the international community unanimously rejected in UN Security Council Resolution 242. After the announcement was made, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley insisted that President Trump was not deciding who controlled the area, but the reality is hard to ignore.
Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US Embassy there will have a detrimental impact on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, a process that many suspect was never an honest priority for the US.
Perhaps most grave is the likely escalation of Israeli military occupation and settlement building on Palestinian land — a situation that would be completely contrary and detrimental to the peace process.
Enhanced occupation would continue decades of depriving Palestinian men, women, and children of basic human rights such as freedom of movement, access to resources, and freedom from cruel and degrading treatment.
Palestinian leaders have called for three days of demonstration in response. Gazans, Turks, and Jordanians have already taken to the streets in protest. It is not a stretch to fear tensions between Israelis and Palestinians will escalate as they did during the summer over metal detector installations at Al Aqsa. Nor is it unreasonable to worry about a full-blown third Intifada, which could result in numerous deaths on both sides. The State Department not only issued a travel warning for the area, but it also set up an emergency task force to deal with the fallout that could result.
This is because the illegality of Israel’s occupation of Palestine is something that virtually the entire Muslim world agrees on.
Trump’s meddling in this is perilous for US foreign policy. In fact, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) — which consists of 57 Muslim and Arab member states — condemned “illegal” measures to impose Israeli authority over Jerusalem “given the grave consequences and threats this presents to international peace and security.”
Many of the OIC’s members, including Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan, are allies in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and are home to US military bases, potentially endangering US military personnel. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said that the recognition of Jerusalem would be a “red line” for Muslims and warned that Turkey could respond by cutting off diplomatic ties with Israel. Other countries could also follow suit.
US allies in Asia and Europe have also expressed concern, with eight countries — including France and the UK — requesting an emergency UN meeting. This is certainly not a good position for the US to be in.
History will determine the true impact of Trump’s decision. But breaking from the rest of the world in order to make good on a campaign promise is not symbolic — it is dangerous.