foreign policy

Making Sense of Trump’s Jerusalem Decision

Not pleased. Photo: MUSA AL SHAER/AFP/Getty Images

National-security experts are confused by President Trump’s announcement that the United States will shift policy and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and, eventually, move the U.S. embassy there. Why give away for free something his predecessors all held onto as leverage in peace talks? Why make a statement — as he did from the White House today, purporting to explain the decision — that no one seemed to need, and many feared would spark violent responses?

But that’s looking at the problem through the wrong lens. One key bit of context is that he had to sign a waiver, as U.S. law requires every six months, to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv. As we’ve seen with the Iran nuclear deal and its every-four-months waiver, Trump has a touchingly consistent resistance to signing declarations with which he does not agree. It almost rises to the level of a moral principle.

Also, Trump’s base is taking a bit of a beating — Americans have not warmed up to the GOP’s tax cut, and continuing revelations about Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore are making even stalwart conservatives queasy. What could be a better antidote, a better symbol of morality and uplift, than Jerusalem, the original “shining city on a hill”?

So the Jerusalem speech — in which he described the move as “something that has to be done” and (disingenuously) “a long overdue step to advance the peace process” — is best understood as the president applying to global affairs the M.O. that brought him success at home. It has three core elements:

Pseudo-transgression: Say something you are “not allowed” to say, or something “everyone knows” but will not say. Obviously, Israel’s administrative capital is in Jerusalem. U.S. diplomats spend a great deal of time there. But no foreign government “recognizes” this, or puts an embassy there, as an acknowledgment that Palestinians seek to have their capital in the eastern part of the city — to which they have a strong claim under international law — and an implicit promise that peace negotiations will get to this point, someday.

Trump-style marketing appeal: Make sure you create a big buildup and lots of commentary and outrage, thus looking to your fans as if you are bravely opposing foolish political correctness. This also spurs your opponents into making apocalyptic predictions about what will happen if you say or do the transgressive thing. If you know that your opponents will rush to hyperbole with little or no provocation (Hamas, for example, says that “the gates of Hell are opening” every other year or so), so much the better.

Cynical risk calculation: Pick issues carefully, going for those where the fallout either will be less than is generally thought or will hurt others, not you. In the case of Jerusalem, the consequences will be long-lasting, but they will come in bits and pieces, not in a made-for-Twitter deluge.

In this case, ironically, Trump’s action made clear some of the realities that have gone unacknowledged by official Washington. For more than two decades, key actors have been willing to play along with the premise that the U.S. is a neutral mediator, even though Democratic and Republican administrations alike tilt firmly toward Israel. Now, the president himself is no longer willing to play along, wanting instead to squeeze maximum benefits from being on the Israeli “side.” The corollary truth that is more and more quietly spoken: an Israeli-Palestinian peace process under U.S. leadership, the way it was envisaged at Oslo 25 years ago, is dead.

The process is dead because of another truth that remained unspoken, but is clearly visible, one that will drive the consequences Americans won’t see right away: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been declining in salience to everyone but the Palestinians for more than a decade. The U.S., Saudi, and Israeli leaders are all operating on the assumption that the conflict is no longer a core security interest for them — or other regional actors. For those three governments, the prize is Iran — and Palestine can either be an asset or a speed bump in that conflict.

This led the U.S. and the Saudis, whose restrained public complaints make it clear that they acquiesced in the U.S. decision, to believe that any backlash among the peoples of the region would be limited, or could be controlled. Demonstrations began Wednesday night mostly in countries whose governments oppose the Saudis’ anti-Iran focus (Turkey) or don’t restrict protest and freedom of assembly (Western Europe).

If the response is relatively muted, Trump chalks this up as a win. But he “wins” the other way, too — the more violent protests occur, the more he can tell his supporters that he is the one protecting them from Islamist extremism. The more the Saudis and other regional autocracies can tell their citizens that the alternative to their rule is chaos. And the more Palestinians can be told that they do not deserve a state.

Palestinian despair, Arab cynicism, and anger from our European allies are hard to measure, and even harder to show on cable news. This week, Germany’s foreign minister criticized the Jerusalem decision and spoke of “the limits of solidarity being reached” in the U.S.-German relationship. That will have consequences, like less German support for U.S. military missions; less German aid to U.S. partners in the Middle East and elsewhere; and potentially less German willingness to join the U.S. in supporting Israel against its critics at the U.N. and elsewhere. Germany won’t be alone, either. Those consequences won’t get the game-show treatment from American media — they’ll be harder to see from here at home. But they’ll be very real.

Making Sense of Trump’s Jerusalem Decision