Trump’s Jerusalem announcement: shooting his Arab allies in the foot

The president has lit a fire and left his Arab allies to deal with the blaze.

Jerusalem skyline. Credit: Flickr/nbartalBy Elisabeth Marteu, Consulting Senior Fellow for Middle East Politics 

The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by the United States will not change anything for the many Palestinians who have lived under Israeli rule since 1967 and no longer believe in the two-state solution. Given the magnitude of the Palestinian people’s disillusion, the main impact of Donald Trump’s decision will be to strengthen the resolve of those who have long been fighting to impose the one-state solution.

Given that Trump recently sent his son-in-law Jared Kushner to the Middle East to negotiate the so-called ‘ultimate deal’, one may wonder what the president’s calculations are. How can he rationally believe that this unilateral decision might lead to a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians? How can he genuinely believe that his unilateral coup de force, criticised by all of his Arab allies, will lead to ‘mutual respect’ between Israelis and Palestinians, as he claimed during his speech? How can he seriously believe that the transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem will preserve the status quo at the holy sites?

Whatever the president’s intention, the possible effect will be to undermine, perhaps fatally, the the power of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and bringing Palestinians to their knees ahead of future negotiations. This effective campaign against the Abbas and the PA started several weeks ago, with a threat to close the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization if the Palestinians did not halt their campaign at the International Criminal Court against Israel. On 15 November, the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee approved the Taylor Force Act, which cuts US aid to the PA until it stops providing financial support to so-called ‘terrorists’. And finally, yesterday, he decided to break the international consensus on Jerusalem by unilaterally supporting the current Israeli government’s extremist position.

Trump could derail Saudi–Israel rapprochement

Trump’s words are a major challenge for Kushner’s efforts and for America’s Arab allies. The president’s son-in-law has been travelling the Middle East (including Saudi Arabia and Egypt) for months, touting a regional peace plan now revealed to be fake and crooked. It is no secret that the ‘ultimate deal’ discussed with Saudi Arabia was intended to facilitate stronger cooperation between Tel Aviv and Riyadh, whose rapprochement, motivated by a common anti-Iranian sentiment, can be formalised only if progress is achieved on the Palestinian issue. But it is hard to see how Trump can bring Palestinians to the negotiating table, and how Arab states can move their relationship with Israel forward, while Abbas calls for a ‘united position of the Arab world’ to avenge the president’s humiliation.

No one can predict the level of violent reaction in Jerusalem, Gaza, Amman or Cairo in the coming weeks. Palestinian factions announced that they would carry out three ‘days of rage’. That explains why Egypt and Jordan, protectors of the holy sites, have tried in vain to discourage Trump over the last few days. If the United Arab Emirates does not react, the silence could indicate its desire to undermine Abbas and to promote his main opponent, Mohammed Dahlan (who lives in Abu Dhabi and maliciously asked the PA to stop talking to Israel), as his successor. But this calculation is highly perilous as the UAE and Egypt may lose control over their candidate.

An opportunity for Iran

The signs of Saudi rapprochement with Israel include Track 2 meetings in Washington, rumoured security cooperation and intelligence sharing, and a recent visit by the secretary general of the Muslim world league to a synagogue in Paris. If Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman does not strongly condemn the US decision, he will lose credibility. Spurious rumours and fake news are circulating on the Israeli–Saudi relationship, such as talk of a recent Saudi proposal to establish the capital of a future Palestinian state in Abu Dis, a suburb of Jerusalem in the West Bank, east of Israel’s security barrier.

Iran and its allies are already calling for resistance against the Israeli–American axis and have accused Saudi Arabia of collusion with the ‘Palestinians’ oppressors’. This would be a great boost to Tehran, which is trying to repair its image after the Syria and Iraq conflicts. Iran has scored points in Lebanon in the wake of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s fake resignation, and may now attract more support thanks to the Palestinian cause.

Washington and Tel Aviv’s Arab allies cannot turn a blind eye on the Palestinian issue. But now the main question is whether so-called ‘Arab moderate states’ (as Benyamin Netanyahu himself likes to describe them) will decide to take concrete action beyond public condemnation. Once again, Trump has lit a fire and left his Arab allies to deal with the blaze. His words have shot them in one foot – will they decide to shoot themselves in the other? 

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.

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