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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 September 2018

For a few minutes of applause, Trump has torn up decades of diplomacy. That's hardly a good deal

The president has jettisoned the idea of presenting the United States as a universal country that others can relate to and even admire, writes Faisal Al Yafai

Ivanka Trump at the controversial opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem. Yonatan Sindel via AP
Ivanka Trump at the controversial opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem. Yonatan Sindel via AP

Dozens dead, thousands injured. Tear gas filling the sky and the shouts of the injured and the dying ringing out. How strange that it was against this backdrop, mere kilometres away, that foreign dignitaries were gathered to smile and make backslapping speeches about peace.

The ceremony to mark the US moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was an odd spectacle, in a way that only the contortions of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian dispute could provide. In a built-up and rather unglamorous part of the city, a group of political and religious leaders clapped amid heavy security while nearby, protesters marching and carrying flags were teargassed. Jerusalem has rarely seemed less of a city for all faiths.

And yet in the spectacle was the political. The ceremony appeared to symbolise so much of what has gone wrong with American diplomacy in the Trump era – and highlighted a crucial but unremarked change in the way the rest of the world views the United States.

For a start, it was theatrics over policy. Donald Trump’s decision to move the embassy brings the prospect of peace no closer for Palestinians and Israelis while simultaneously distancing the US from its traditional allies. It is hard to think of a single way in which the decision has enhanced peace or brought the two sides closer together.

And this was on a stage full of division: a divisive ceremony on a divisive issue in a divided city.

Both Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr Trump are divisive politicians. In a city where Arabs and Jews are divided from each other by physical barriers, faith groups are divided by opinion; Jewish Israelis don't all agree with the decision to move the embassy and few Muslim and Christian Palestinians do. Even the Christian pastor that Mr Trump chose to pray at the ceremony is deeply divisive, having made disparaging remarks about both Jews and Muslims.

The ceremony itself seemed to symbolise something wider. There was the disregard for international law in moving the embassy in the first place and the disregard for the views of US allies, Arab and western, who cautioned against it and who stayed away from the ceremony.

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Even the deal seemed to highlight Mr Trump's political inexperience. By moving the embassy, he handed Israelis one of their maximalist demands without getting any concessions in return. Even George W Bush, hardly a master in the art of the deal, managed to extract concessions from Ariel Sharon before he agreed to let Israel keep some settlements.

But perhaps the most jarring aspect of watching the ceremony was a recognition of how different American diplomacy is in the era of Mr Trump. Something subtle but crucial has shifted in the way the US relates to the rest of the world, and it was embodied by the ceremony in west Jerusalem yesterday: the US no longer knows how to speak to the world beyond its borders.

However partisan American presidents were, they were always acutely conscious of maintaining America's role in the world. It was called “American leadership” or “American values, but what it boiled down to was a way of thinking about and phrasing narrow American political goals in a way that appealed to values people abroad could relate to. It was a way of presenting America as a universal country, a country that others could relate to and even admire, even if they disliked specific policies.

No American leader in recent history was better than this, of course, than Barack Obama, a man who could explain the most partisan of Democrat policies in a universal language.

Mr Trump, however, has completely jettisoned that idea. He doesn't appear to understand it, much less even gesture at it.

And that's why the decision to move the embassy and to celebrate it in such a partisan way will be so damaging for the US. Because it coalesces this indefinable feeling that the Trump administration doesn't care about people, laws or values into something specific and tangible. There was a reason why so many media organisations – including this newspaper – illustrated their coverage with side-by-side images of the ceremony and the Palestinian protests. Because it showed, at a glance, how far away the US has moved from being a universal country.

All unpopular governments face that moment domestically. For Mr Bush, it was the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when swollen African-American bodies viewed from helicopters seemed to symbolise the racial divide. For Mr Trump, this is that moment internationally, when the rest of the world begins to doubt it can share American values. Of course it will have political repercussions in the Middle East; Mahmoud Abbas has already said the US cannot be a mediator any longer.

But it will have repercussions far beyond Jerusalem. By moving the embassy, Mr Trump thinks he is showing resolve. In fact, he is diminishing America's power by diluting its values. On one of the most divisive issues imaginable, Mr Trump has not listened to his allies, to experts or even to people who live in the city itself. That contempt for American values has been heard around the world. For a few minutes of applause, Mr Trump has torn up decades of diplomacy. That's hardly a good deal.

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