News & Politics

Is Donald Trump About to Set the Middle East Ablaze?

Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital could set off violent conflict across the region.

Photo Credit: YouTube Screengrab

Not content with taking the US to the brink of nuclear conflict with North Korea, Donald Trump is now set to apply his strategy of international vandalism to perhaps the most sensitive geopolitical hotspot in the world. With a speech scheduled for later today that’s expected to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and reaffirm a pledge to move the US embassy to the city, he is walking into a bone-dry forest with a naked flame.the world’s most intractable conflict. It is the issue that has foiled multiple efforts at peacemaking over several decades. Both Israelis and Palestinians insist that Jerusalem must be the capital of their states, present and future, and that that status is non-negotiable.

But it’s not just important to them. The Old City of Jerusalem contains the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest mosque in Islam, to say nothing of its enormous significance to Christians, meaning that even the slightest move there is felt by billions. It is a place where diplomats have learned to tread with extreme care. There is a reason why no US administration, no matter how pro-Israel, has changed its policy toward the city in the nearly 70 years since Israel’s founding.

But here comes Trump, oblivious to precedent and indeed history – even in a place where history is a matter of life and death – stomping through this delicate thicket, trampling over every sensitivity. The risk is obvious, with every Arab government – including those loyal to Washington – now issuing sharp warnings on the perils of this move, almost all of them using the same word: “dangerous”.

Let us be clear. Most advocates of an eventual two-state solution believe the only way to resolve the Jerusalem issue is for it to serve as the capital of both states: East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Then, and only then, would be the right moment to start moving embassies and issuing statements of recognition. Until that day, any act that pre-empts an agreement between the two parties on the city’s future is reckless and needlessly incendiary.

How incendiary? Recall that the second intifada – which turned into a bloody two or more years of death for Israelis at the hands of Palestinian suicide bombers, and death for Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli military – started after a 45-minute visit in late 2000 by the then leader of the Israeli opposition, Ariel Sharon, to the place that represents the nuclear core of this most radioactive conflict, the site Muslims call the Haram al-Sharif and Jews call the Temple Mount. Bear that in mind when you hear the Palestinian ambassador to London say that Trump’s move amounts to “declaring war on 1.5 billion Muslims”.

Why is Trump doing it? Perhaps he wants to show that he’s honouring his campaign pledges: now, along with his tax cut for the rich and his travel ban from mainly Muslim countries, he can tick the box marked Jerusalem. He said he would do it, and now he’s doing it, and to hell with the consequences. That’s a style of politics his base – including those Christian evangelicals hawkish on Israel – seems to like.

The rest of the world will draw some comfort from the fact that no immediate move of the embassy is imminent; that it may not even happen before Trump’s term expires in January 2021. Perhaps this will be like Trump’s break from the Paris accords on climate change – more symbolic than concrete.

But that is to forget that in the Israel-Palestine conflict, symbols matter. Which is why other world leaders, and senior US politicians, need to close ranks in saying this act is wrong and does not speak for them. They need to signal that a saner policy might prevail once Trump has gone. The trouble is that by then, given the way violence in that region can spread and escalate, it might be too late.

 

Jonathan Freedland writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, and presents BBC Radio 4's contemporary history series, The Long View. He was named columnist of the year in the 2002 What the Papers Say awards and in 2008 was awarded the David Watt prize for journalism. He has also published seven books, including five bestselling thrillers under the name Sam Bourne. He tweets as @freedland.

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