US President Donald Trump, near an Israeli flag at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun
US President Donald Trump near an Israeli flag at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun

US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 6 surprised the international community and triggered the wrath of Palestinians and many Arab states.

We do no have an absolute explanation at the moment why the president acted in this way, overthrowing traditional US policy and the international consensus on this issue, but at first sight it seems that internal calculations prevailed over other variables.

In any case, it has to be taken into account that there was a decision by the US Congress back in 1995 (the Jerusalem Embassy Act) requiring that the US Embassy to be transferred from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. However, that act has not been implemented, since all US presidents have used the deviation clause – a provision that allows them to postpone the decision – noting that the Jerusalem issue must be resolved in the context of a final negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians.

But why has Trump broken this consensus?

The special US-Israeli relationship

Before attempting to answer this question, we must focus on US-Israeli relations. Since the end of World War II, Israel has enjoyed a special relationship with the United States. Specifically, after the Six Day War in June 1967, Israel became for the US a “strategic asset” in the region, while Arab states such as Egypt and Syria were allied with Russia.

It is worth mentioning that Israel is the largest recipient of US aid in the world, amounting to US$3 billion every year. In addition, the US provides the Jewish state with unprecedented diplomatic support and billions of dollars’ worth of armaments. I would call this relationship the external variable.

Turning to history, the United States in 1947 supported the plan to partition Palestine, an unfair decision in violation of international law, and in particular the law of self-determination of the majority Palestinian nationality.

Specifically, at the end of the First World War in Palestine there were only 65,000 Jews among a total of 700,000 Arabs. In addition, despite the steady flow of Jewish settlers to Palestine in 1948 among a total of about 2 million Arabs, only one-third of the population were Jews, according to Malcolm Yapp in The Near East from the First World War: A History to 1995.

It must be said here that the Soviet Union also supported United Nations Resolution 181 because it wanted to eliminate the British influence in the region. Many Jewish settlers came from the Soviet Union and its satellite countries.

Let’s move to the so-called internal variable.

Internal variable in US-Israel relationship

It is well known that millions of Jews who live in the United States maintain important government positions, and they have remarkable economic influence. In order to demonstrate how important their presence is for domestic politics we may recall that in 1947, US president Harry Truman supported the Palestine partition plan because he wanted to secure Jewish support in the crucial mid-term congressional elections in November 1946.

Afterward, Jewish presence in the United States, especially in the northern states, forced Truman to recognize de facto the Jewish state because he wanted to safeguard their electoral influence in the presidential election 1948. When one of his foreign-policy advisers told him that doing so would affect US relations with the Arabs, Truman replied, “Unlike the American Jews, I do not have thousands of Arabs among my voters.”

The question raised here is whether Trump recognized Jerusalem because of internal calculations. Of course, there is a secondary question: Why did the previous presidents vote against this by using the deviation clause? It does not seem that Trump made this decision solely because of pressure from the Jewish lobby.

Additionally, we must note that in July 2016, the Republican Party approved a declaration in which there was no reference to a “two state” solution, overturning decades of tradition. That decision was welcomed and adopted by President Trump in February 2017.

What we should emphasize, however, is that the so-called evangelical or religious right, from which Trump drew many votes in the 2016 election, has long been in favor of Israeli interests. It should be noted that US Vice-President Mike Pence is a champion of these positions.

Evangelical Christians or Zionist Christians believe that unwavering support for the Jewish state and its decisions is a biblical imperative, regardless of Jewish refusal to accept the Christian faith. At the same time, they are ardent supporters of illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian areas. The paradox of the whole situation is that there are many anti-Semites among the Christian right. However, some of them support Israel for geopolitical reasons.

Jerusalem and the rational model

From any angle, Trump’s decision appears misguided and irrational and does not promote US national interests. From a narrow international perspective, it violates international law, as well as the international consensus reached in 1966 when it was decided that the final status of Jerusalem would result from a viable and comprehensive peace agreement between the parties.

Trump’s decision violates the so-called “rational choice” model, which teaches us that states base decisions on a cost-benefit analysis, that is, they are prevented from taking any action that could potentially harm their national interests.

Is Trump’s decision compatible with US national interests? According to our humble opinion, it is not. Specifically:

  • It creates the conditions for greater tension and instability in the region.
  • It casts doubt among the Palestinians as to whether the US is an honest mediator and undermines the resumption of the peace process that Trump’s son-in-law is supposed to restart.
  • The decision insults the religious feelings of all Muslims, leading logically to a “clash of civilizations.”
  • It creates the conditions for the resurgence of religious terrorism.
  • Finally, Trump’s decision isolates the United States in the international community by demonstrating that the government of the strongest country in the world is prejudiced against one party to the conflict. In other words, Trump and his advisers do not seem to realize that America’s greatest strength is not the example of its power but the power of its example.

Some historical and demographic data

At this point we will briefly refer to some historical facts about Jerusalem. Israel’s political sovereignty is derived from Resolution 181 of 1947, whereby Palestine was divided into a Jewish and an Arab state. Jerusalem would be placed under an international regime, and therefore neither of the two newly born states would place it under sovereignty.

When the UN plan was rejected by the Arab side, conflict erupted between the Palestinians and Israelis, and subsequently the first Arab-Israeli War in May 1948.

The end of the war found Israel occupying West Jerusalem, and Jordan the east side. During the second Arab-Israeli War in June 1967, Israel occupied East Jerusalem and then annexed it. In 1980 it proclaimed Jerusalem as the “complete and united capital of Israel,” an act deemed illegal by the international community and in particular by UN Security Council Resolution 478.

Jerusalem is considered to be of great religious significance for both Arabs and Jews. The Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state, consider Jerusalem the third most holy city for Islam after Mecca and Medina. They believe that the Prophet Muhammad was taken to heaven by Burak, a winged horse, on the “night journey” of Muslim tradition. The Israelis believe that the foundations of the temple of Solomon are there. Jerusalem symbolizes for them vindication after a prolonged period of hardship and exile.

In essence, Trump’s decision recognizes Jewish occupation of the city in violation of UN resolutions, which, like the Oslo Accord, provide that Jerusalem’s status will be clarified after negotiations between the two sides.

We must mention that in East Jerusalem reside 250,000 Palestinians and 200,000 Jewish settlers, while the West is purely Jewish. Also, one must take into account that apart from the city of Jerusalem there is also “Greater Jerusalem,” where Israel has established big settlements.

Further, we need to highlight another parameter. In 1967, when the second Arab-Israeli war broke out, 85% of the land of Jerusalem belonged to Palestinians, while today the proportion i only 13%. In addition, while the Israelis accounted for 10% of the population in 1967, now they make up 45%.

Saudi-Iranian rivalry

We may come back to our primary question of why the US president has made this controversial decision. In addition to the domestic reasons we have already set out in the article, apparently Trump had in mind that the confrontation of Shiite Iran with Saudi Arabia would act as a catalyst for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

How is this going to happen? Probably Trump wrongly believed that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, embroiled in security competition with Tehran, would accept the Jewish position for Jerusalem in exchange for US aid to neutralize or weaken their Iranian rival. In other words, Trump sought in this way to exterminate the weak part of the conflict, the Palestinians in order to change the dynamic of the conflict by imposing already existing realities, thus the Jewish occupation of East Jerusalem.

Of course, what he succeeded in doing is quite the opposite, and possibly the Iranians could gain from this move, once again appearing as defenders of the Palestinians. But also the resurgence of a protracted conflict helps no one, since it affects the prospects of resolving the problem on the basis of a “two states solution,” the only realistic way, in our opinion, to solve the problem.

Nicos Panayiotides

Dr Nicos Panayiotides is the head of the Geostrategic Observatory of the Middle East (GEOPAME), journalist and assistant professor of political studies at American College in Nicosia. He is also Research Associate at the Center for Oriental Studies (Panteion University). His academic interests focus on the Cyprus problem, Middle East politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is author of several scientific publications in academic journals and four books on the Cyprus and Palestinian problems.

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