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The Coming Storm
The Trump administration's Jerusalem decision is of great consequence for the Middle East
By Yu Guoqing | NO. 2 JANUARY 11, 2018

Egyptian people protest U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in Cairo on December 7, 2017 XINHUA

U.S. President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the subsequent decision to relocate the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv in December 2017, invoked a tempest of criticism from around the world.

On December 21, 2017, in response to the Trump administration's unprecedented move, the United Nations (UN) held an emergency special session and passed a resolution with the support of an overwhelming majority, declaring that any decision or action which seeks to change Jerusalem's official status were null and void. The resolution also reiterated the need for negotiations between Israel and Palestine to decide the status of the city.

Before the vote, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley warned of retaliation against those who opposed the U.S. position, but many countries nonetheless voted to condemn the White House decision, which demonstrated that both the U.S. and Israel stand in relative isolation on this extremely sensitive issue.

The holy city

The Jerusalem problem is one of the most contentious issues in the ongoing dispute between Israel and the Arab countries, and is also amongst the most sensitive in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. An ancient city with 5,000 years of history, it has at one time or another been home to nations both Arabic and Jewish, their peoples, religious temples and other cultural relics. It is the common holy land of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In theory at least, Jerusalem's status has already been decided by the UN. Back in 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 181 which recommended the creation of independent Arab and Jewish States and a Special International Regime for the city of Jerusalem. However, this ruling was quickly cast aside, and during the 1948 Palestine War Israel acquired West Jerusalem while Jordan took control of the eastern part of the city. In 1967, the Six-Day War culminated in the annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel, and in 1980 the legislative branch of the Israeli Government passed a law proclaiming Jerusalem as the country's "complete and united capital."

Arab countries have never recognized the legitimacy of Israel's actions regarding the status of Jerusalem, and Palestine has all the while been striving to establish a state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The international community in general does not recognize Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem, and most countries, including the U.S., established their embassies in Tel Aviv.

Why now?

So why did Trump decide to strike out on his own even though he must have anticipated the strong reaction from the international community? It surely must be the case that such a decision, a departure from the United States' traditional position and a divergence from the stance of his predecessors, was occasioned by special considerations and the geopolitical background.

One purpose of the announcement could be an attempt to reactivate the stalled Middle East peace process by stoking the core issue, and to use this opportunity to adjust U.S. relations with the involved Middle Eastern countries. However, it remains to be seen whether such an uncertain and provocative strategy will be able to achieve this goal.

In fact, since taking office, Trump has secretly negotiated with Israel and Saudi Arabia on how to reactivate the Middle East peace process, and according to some reports, Trump had informed Israel, Egypt, Jordan and many other Middle East countries of his administration's plans to change its official position on the issue before the final decision was made.

While Arab countries widely opposed Trump's announcement, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabian refrained from any kind of overreaction, and an emergency summit of Arab nations to discuss this issue, called for by Palestine, is still yet to be held.

So far, the U.S. and Israel have managed to endure the initial resistance and protest coming from Arab countries, keeping the backlash to a minimum. However, it remains to be seen whether the U.S. and Israel can turn this into an opportunity to revitalize the Middle East peace process.

Furthermore, this move was deemed necessary to augment Trump's support at home, and to fulfill a hallmark electoral commitment when approval ratings and support seem to be low. After all, an assurance to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem had been one of the central planks of Trump's election campaign. To many among his voter base, the U.S. president is now seen to have fulfilled this promise, and whilst the reaction to the Jerusalem decision within the U.S. was certainly mixed, many were satisfied with what they saw as a necessary and overdue decision.

The Trump administration's announcement has also served to consolidate ties between the U.S. and Israel. Israel has been a strategic ally of the U.S. for over half a century, and successive U.S. administrations, although often disagreeing with Israel over a number of specific issues, have always understood the importance of maintaining this strategic relationship.

By contrast, the relationship between the U.S. and other countries in the region is generally lukewarm, and the White House lacks a reliable ally in the Middle East except Israel. Iran, once a close ally of the U.S., tore away following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, becoming the United States' principal adversary in the region. Furthermore, U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey are usually in some way tested and strained by regional and global circumstances. In light of this, Israel is of all the more importance to the U.S. strategically, and it is unsurprising that the Trump administration has sought to strengthen its relationship with the only country with which it can agree on major issues.

A region reacts

However, Trump cannot have his cake and eat it too. Against the backdrop of decades of conflict and confrontation, Trump's overture to Israel has unsurprisingly drawn fierce opposition from Palestine.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared that the U.S. was no longer an honest mediator in the peace process and its future attempts at such meditation would be refused. He also said that Palestinians would take a series of measures to resist Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Obviously, Trump's move is in opposition to his intention of reactivating the peace process between Palestine and Israel, and the U.S. must now recognize that the Arab countries and the Islamic world are unlikely to follow its position on the issue of Jerusalem.

On December 13, 2017, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held a special leaders' meeting in Istanbul at the behest of Turkey. After the meeting, a communiqué was issued announcing the recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. The OIC also called on the UN to protect the legal status of Jerusalem and to put a stop to Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian land.

While much of this must have been anticipated in Washington, Turkey's role may well have been the cause of some raised eyebrows as it has condemned the U.S. in the harshest terms. It is clear that Turkey is looking to consolidate its position as a standard bearer of the Islamic world, and also reflects Turkey's shift toward Russia and Iran on the most critical issues facing the Middle East.

The U.S. is being faced with greater worldwide opposition on a whole host of Middle Eastern issues, which also shows the need for Washington to consolidate its traditional partnerships with Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Trump's Jerusalem move might test the United States' alliance with regional countries. In 2017 the geopolitical situation in the Middle East underwent a dramatic change with the defeat of the extremist group Islamic State. The influence of Russia and Iran in the region, particularly in the ongoing Syrian conflict, has become increasingly evident, which is a situation that the U.S. does not want to see.

It seemed dangerous, almost reckless, for Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but many geopolitical considerations were in fact behind the decision. Besides consolidating the alliances between the U.S. and some Middle Eastern countries, such a move also displayed U.S. power, expressing not just its ability to act alone and by its own rules, but also Washington's intention to continue dominating the global discussion on issues in the Middle East. Nonetheless, since the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is widely regarded as the root cause of instability in the Middle East, Trump's decision regarding Jerusalem will once again thrust the issue into the global spotlight.

The author is a researcher at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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