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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Trump said he didn't care about the Jerusalem fallout. Turns out he cares a lot  

The US president thought he was shoring up his evangelical base with the announcement – but the move backfired worse than he could have imagined

US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley speaks during a UN Security Council meeting on the status of Jerusalem last week / AFP
US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley speaks during a UN Security Council meeting on the status of Jerusalem last week / AFP

I am not in the outrage business. Years ago I trafficked in plenty of professional Arab-American pique. But around 2004, I deliberately abandoned the bluster, the community representation that required it and the farcical television “debates” I then specialised in. Sober, constructive analysis intended to promote preferable outcomes seemed so much more valuable and interesting.

Time and again, though, Donald Trump is painfully forcing me back into indignation mode – most recently on Jerusalem. On this most sensitive of disputes, involving war and peace and therefore people’s lives, my instincts and values instruct me to craft frank and thoughtful but purposeful interventions that, hopefully, might help prevent matters from getting worse and perhaps even promote improvement. Words do matter.

Alas, Mr Trump is giving those of us searching for the least negative interpretation of his recent actions on Jerusalem nothing to work with.

Just before his announcement earlier this month pledging to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, I incurred the blustering wrath of a noted Palestinian activist on an Arab TV show. I suggested that Mr Trump was largely motivated by domestic political considerations and that there existed a wide range of possible statements he might make with varying diplomatic implications and, therefore, also an array of potentially wise Arab and Palestinian responses. The simple suggestion that political realities are complex sent him into paroxysms of outrage, peppered with ludicrous accusations.

But this angry rejection of analysis and indignant championing of un-thought illustrated that opportunists and demagogues were being handed a potentially potent rhetorical weapon that would be highly resistant to the simplest applications of reason.

I pointed out, for example, that some vital policy implications of Mr Trump’s announcement would hinge on quotidian but meaningful bureaucratic questions, such as whether American diplomatic documents would continue to refer simply to “Jerusalem” or would now read “Jerusalem, Israel”. Apparently there are no plans to refer to “Jerusalem, Israel”, which is clearly quite significant.

Beyond such details, however, both the announcement and several subsequent administration moves almost wilfully block any broader reading that mitigates the enormous harm they have done to prospects for peace and broader US interests in the Middle East.

True, in his statement Mr Trump did claim: “We are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders.”

But that is obviously false. Merely stating that “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital” unquestionably takes a strong new position on a core final status issue. It severely prejudices and might effectively remove Jerusalem from negotiations. This isolated, vague and factually incorrect sentence did virtually nothing to offset his echoing mantra that “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital”.

Since then, all serious people have been waiting, again in vain, for White House clarification that Mr Trump was talking about West Jerusalem and not occupied East Jerusalem.

Astoundingly, administration officials were unable to even identify what country they believed Mr Trump was in when he visited the Western Wall. Another senior official further muddied the waters by stating: “We cannot envision any situation under which the Western Wall would not be part of Israel.”

But please remember, they are "not taking any position on final status issues".

Then came the US veto at the UN Security Council on Monday, whose other members voted unanimously in favour of repudiating and invalidating Mr Trump’s statement, followed by his offensive and insulting threats to link US aid to countries’ votes on a similar resolution that was passed overwhelmingly by the General Assembly.

Those of us looking for ways forward have been utterly thwarted. What can we honestly say? That Mr Trump was referring to West Jerusalem but not East Jerusalem? That he hasn’t prejudiced a core final status issue or trashed the very basis of the Oslo agreements and the peace process which Washington is supposed to guarantee? That we even understand what, precisely, US policy is now on Jerusalem?

Clearly, Mr Trump did this to shore up his evangelical base given mounting political pressure he faces from the Robert Mueller investigation and his dwindling public support. But it is also evident that this inexperienced administration thought they didn’t care about the international fallout, because they badly underestimated it. It turns out they care very much indeed, with anger and recriminations aimed even at close allies.

Mr Trump probably thought he was ticking a domestic political box and wouldn’t have to hear anything more about Jerusalem during his presidency. In reality, he’ll never hear the end of it.

The worst actors are having a cynical field day. Israel’s long-standing ally, Turkey, is now absurdly posing as the champion of Palestine and Al Quds to promote its pro-Islamist, pro-Hamas agenda. Ankara's main competition comes from Hizbollah and Iran.

Mr Trump’s Jerusalem statement was reckless, miscalculated and deeply harmful. Instead of salvaging matters with simple but crucial clarifications, his administration is now repeatedly doubling-down on the damage. Someone should inform them Palestinians and other Arabs have domestic politics too.

My raison d’etre as a commentator will remain crafting constructive arguments. But Mr Trump’s Jerusalem fiasco is a reminder that sometimes it’s just impossible.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC