By Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs; Editor of Survival
For the seven decades since Israel first declared its capital in West Jerusalem, 12 US presidents – that is to say, all of them – have considered it the better part of wisdom to refrain from officially recognising the city as Israel’s capital. To be sure, in the half century since June 1967, when Israeli forces took control of the entire city, there has not been any serious American doubt that Jerusalem was and would remain the seat of government for the Jewish state. For this most fraught issue of identity and grievance, however, amidst all the fraught problems of the Arab–Israeli conflict, the US government accepted that diplomatic restraint, nuance and ambiguity would be required for creative solutions – on Jerusalem and everything else – to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable Israeli and Palestinian aspirations.
Supporters of President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon this restraint, which he was expected to announce on Wednesday afternoon, will make a number of arguments. First, recognising reality is just the American way, a blunt, no-nonsense refusal to engage any longer in a diplomatic charade. Second, the decision is in keeping with the principle of 'no daylight’ between the United States and its Israeli ally. And third, the professions of indignation from Arab leaders, however sincere, are also secondary – because those Arabs are much more interested in, and pleased by, the Trump’s administration’s stated determination to confront Iran, after their disenchantment with an Obama policy of balanced engagement that they judged to be feckless and naïve.
These arguments are all problematic. Taking the last one first: disregard for the stability and predictability offered by the Iran nuclear agreement is not going to bring to Washington’s Arab partners the American steadfastness that they desire – because no administration will have an adequate answer to the problem of Iran resuming progress towards a nuclear-weapons capability. Moreover, while the subordination of the Palestinians’ plight to a tacit Sunni–Israeli convergence has some superficial strategic logic, it might not be altogether safe to discount the resonance of Palestinian grievances among those Sunni states’ populations.
As for ‘no daylight’ between the US and Israel, my co-author Steven Simon and I have argued at book length that neglecting the democratic values at the heart of this alliance will undermine it more quickly than an analysis based on shallow strategic realism might acknowledge. President Trump, to be sure, has been less than fixated on the democracy and human-rights dimension of US foreign policy, offering some respite to an Israeli government that had grown weary of American hectoring about West Bank settlements. But that doesn’t mean that US policy will continue in a Trumpian direction forever. And the potential consequences for the US–Israel alliance bring to mind the Hemingway line, much quoted of late, from a character in The Sun Also Rises who was asked how he went bankrupt. (‘Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.’)
Which brings us to the question of how much diplomatic credit the United States still has in the world at large. There was a remarkable article in the New York Times about the ‘distinctly chilly’ reception that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson received in Brussels yesterday ‘as disappointment among European diplomats in President Trump’s nationalistic tone and insulting messages on Twitter built into quiet fury on the eve of an expected announcement that the United States would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel’. The article went on to observe that, in a brief appearance with Tillerson, the European Union foreign policy representative Federica Mogherini, ‘gave the kind of stone-cold statement of facts that she would normally provide standing beside her Russian counterpart, not the American one’. Mogherini was scathing about the administration’s threats to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal, as well as the Jerusalem decision.
Abandoning one more diplomatic convention may not, in itself, break the bank. But the Trump disruptions are placing a heavy burden on future US diplomacy.
This article is part of a series of posts providing analysis and commentary from IISS experts throughout the IISS Manama Dialogue, to be held in Bahrain on 8–10 December 2017.
For full coverage of the proceedings visit the IISS Manama Dialogue 2017 website. For a flavour of the debate on social media, check out #IISSMD17.