“Today we saw the up side of Trump’s willingness to smash norms,” wrote Philip Klein of this announcement. Indeed. Formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital is an audacious move, something to which every presidential candidate pays lip service and from which every president quietly retreats once elected for fear of a global Muslim freakout. Only one who’s unusually comfortable with audacity would follow through. (And would go out of his way, as Trump does below, to note how timid his predecessors have been.) That’s what we have. To Republican supporters of Israel, this is repayment for their vote last November as much as Gorsuch’s appointment was repayment to conservatives.
What happens now that the Palestinians, a people whose entire culture is organized around irredentist illusions, have been told that it’s time to drop this particular illusion? Good things, says Eli Lake:
Palestinians are fed a steady stream of propaganda about the danger to Jerusalem. Even Abbas, who has authorized cooperation with the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank, has given speeches warning about Jewish plans to alter al-Aqsa and Jerusalem. All the while, Western leaders in particular have continued to call on both sides to negotiate.
And that’s the real danger of sticking to the policy of Jerusalem neutrality. It feeds a Palestinian illusion: With enough patience and rage, one day the Jews will be evicted from their eternal capital. That’s not going to happen. And as more and more Arab states come to rely on Israel in the regional war against Iran and its proxies, this fact is becoming more visible to the rest of the region.
A reckoning on the city has to happen eventually if there’s going to be peace, just as a reckoning has to happen with the right to return. Palestinians aren’t going “home” and they’re not getting Jerusalem. Both conditions are nonstarters. The question is whether that should happen now or at some more opportune time in the future. Some Trump skeptics would say, “Any time when a loose cannon isn’t in charge of America’s foreign policy would be a more opportune time.” Fair enough, but there’s always a “more opportune time” down the line, which is why U.S. presidents have been punting this issue sequentially for 70 years. And Lake makes a good point: Logically, if you’re going to force this issue, you’d want to do it at a moment when Arab regimes are least likely to make hay of it for their own cynical domestic ends. Right now, when the new Saudi strongman is moving against Wahhabists and Sunni dictators are more nervous about Iran consolidating power in Syria than about Israel, seems like a decent candidate for that sort of moment.
Or is it? Iran will demagogue Trump’s decision to the hilt to stir up jihadis against Israel and the United States and, as importantly, to try to drive a wedge between Arab leaders who are quietly allied with Israel against Tehran and the fabled Sunni Arab Street. Which way does the average Sunni go on this, indulging his prejudices against Shiites by sticking with his government against Iran or indulging his prejudices towards against Israel by turning on his government for refusing to back the Palestinians as full-throatedly as Iran has?
The Sunni freakout, starting with the Palestinians, is the one to watch but other freakouts will follow — among European leaders (Macron has already condemned Trump’s decision), among Democrats (who were happy to vote for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital so long as there was no chance of it happening), and among America’s Sunni allies, starting with the dictator in Turkey who warned Trump yesterday that this would be crossing a “red line.” Trump himself attempted to ease the impact of his decision by signing a new six-month waiver today that’ll keep the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. The designation of Jerusalem as the capital is purely formal at this point, and may remain so for the duration of his presidency.
If there is political fallout, though, it’s apt to work in Trump’s favor. Most Americans are pro-Israel, the GOP emphatically so and Democrats sufficiently so that Dem leaders in Congress will be careful about criticizing POTUS too harshly. The right will pull together in support of him, especially if the world is treated to scenes of Muslims rampaging abroad to protest a setback to “peace.” Hamas declared today that Trump has opened “the gates of hell,” so, yeah. Here he is followed by Bibi Netanyahu giving him a long-distance high-five.