Jerusalem as the capital of Israel: madness or a pragmatic move by Donald Trump?


By recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announcing the relocation of the Tel Aviv US Embassy to the “holy city”, the US president has poked the bear in the international community. The Mediterranean and Middle East Institute of Research and Studies (iReMMO) organized a conference last Wednesday in an attempt to understand Donald Trump’s decision.  Philip Golub, guest of honor and lecturer at the American University of Paris, presented his view on the situation.

According to him, one cannot say that the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state came as a surprise. “He had warned us”, says Golub, author of the recently published Une autre histoire de la puissance américaine (Another History of American Power). Golub sees three reasons for this decision: a gesture towards evangelists, splitting Fatah and Hamas and strengthening the alliance between Arab countries, Israel and the US against Iran.

A move to please his electorate

It is a well-known and often-used recipe. In trouble on the national political scene, Donald Trump is trying to escape the many scandals that surround him by occupying himself with foreign politics. It is clear that this “coup of his” has been a success. The public outcry is undeniable. But Trump does not care. Not in the least globalist, scorning the international community and claiming the superiority of US law over international law, Trump is, in the words of Mr. Golub, “not a very promising character”. But then again, how does one explain this deep attachment the American evangelical right holds towards the Jewish state? This support seems to have its roots in theological foundations. For the faithful, the State of Israel is the realization of the divine will uttered in the bible. “One of the two great lobbies of the evangelical right is a millenarian fundamentalist one: for Jesus to return to earth, we must again meet the conditions of his advent, which today passes by the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state” underlined Lauric Henneton, specialist in religious affairs in the United States and senior lecturer at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. In addition to the support of the evangelical right, one must note the influence of several influential Jewish lobbies in the United States. “It satisfies in particular the Republican conservatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)”, said Lauric Henneton. However, Donald Trump’s supporters are not united on the issue. “The paradox is that many people who voted for Mr. Trump are anti-Semitic”, points out Philip Golub.

A historic decision but not a new idea

The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is anything but a new idea. In 1947, the United Nations Security Council anticipated the partition of Palestine – at the time under British mandate – into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Jerusalem, constituting as a separate entity or “corpus separatum”, would be controlled by the United Nations. The first Arab-Israeli war changed it all. Defeated, the Arab coalition saw Jerusalem split in two. On the one side the eastern part returned to Jordan while the western part was annexed by Israel in 1949, making it its capital. In 1967, the Six-Day War enabled Israel to conquer, along with the West Bank, the eastern part of Jerusalem, which was annexed on the 28th June 1967. The boundaries of the municipality were multiplied by 12. Passing from 607 to 7285 hectares. The “reunited” city became – despite a first resolution in disagreement with the UN – the “eternal and invisible capital of the Jewish people” as well as the status and expression engraved in the Israeli constitution in 1980. A unilateral act, condemned almost unanimously – only the United States abstained – by a resolution of the Security Council. The UN text invites states with representation in Jerusalem to withdraw. Most countries, including France, the United Kingdom and the United States, maintain their representation in Tel Aviv, the second largest city and the economic capital of Israel. Yet, in 1995, under a Democratic mandate, the US Congress adopted the “Jerusalem embassy act” which states that “Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel” and that the US embassy should be transferred to Jerusalem “no later than 31th May 1999”. However, it is necessary to recall the context. This decision was passed in the midst of the “peace process of the Oslo Accords” or “of Taba”, which started in Washington D.C. on the 13th September 1993, between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. The aim was to achieve Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza as well as to set the course of the final negotiations. The Taba-Egypt agreement, signed in Washington D.C. on the 28th September 1995, was already less enthusiastic than only two years earlier. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist a month after these agreements has neither been called into question in the Oslo Accords, nor pushed to implement the UN resolution to recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel. “Even during his two terms – 2001 to 2009 – Georges W. Bush did not dare to make this decision”, says Golub.

The deafening silence of Arab countries

Following the decision of Mr. Trump, a wind of protest in the Arab countries was to be feared. But nothing has happened. Here and there some American flags burned, at most. “The silence of Arab countries is incredible”, Golub said. A silence that finds at least two explanations. First, the times have changed. “Palestine remains important but is no longer a priority for the Arab countries”. The Arab countries, as a whole, have many internal difficulties. And then again, “it would be wrong to believe that Arab countries are all one and the same”. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are among those. The currents promulgating an Arab unity such as the Baath party – renaissance – at the end of the Second World War, Nasserism, led by one of the leaders of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the former president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, or the pan-Arab and pan-African attempt of Muammar Gaddafi, all failed. In addition, locally, there are difficult relations with Hamas, and the statement of the US President has resurfaced the differences between the two camps. At the moment, Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian factions, are divided on what strategy to adopt.

Iran in the line of fire

Even if Arab unity is not feasible, Shia unity with Iran acting as the pivot is a very real possibility. “The influence of Iran is growing. It has never been so big”, says Golub. This is particularly the case in Syria, at the gates of Israel. Iran was completely absent in the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Today, the Iranian soldiers are on the ground and fight on the ground, where the Russians bomb them in support of Bashar Al Assad. Once again, one must rely on history to understand the issues. “The fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 was a blow to American diplomacy. The loss of the Iranian ally has put into question the entire strategic architecture of the United States in the Middle East. Added to this is the drastic intervention in Iraq. This intervention was a godsend for the Iranian authorities”, Golub said. It allowed the Shiite power to see its influence grow while over the border Iraq fell into chaos. With this decision, symbolic in itself, Donald Trump wants above all to strengthen the alliance, as unlikely as it is, between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. As the saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

On the 18th of December, the US president announced four objectives for the United States: to protect the US territory, promote prosperity, preserve peace by strengthening US military power, and advance America’s global influence. Some contradictory statements call for a 30% cutback of “external action programs”, apparently not including Israel, who will receive more than 3 billion dollars from the US government. At least, that is until Donald Trump changes his mind again.

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