Trump lights powder keg in Middle East

By recognising the city as Israel’s capital – something no other nation has done – the US president is threatening stability in a region that is all too easily prone to violence and unrest

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 December, 2017, 12:50am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 December, 2017, 12:50am

Dangerous, reckless, alarming – those are some of the terms governments have used in response to US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the American embassy there. In making his announcement, Trump said he was committed to the Middle East peace process and would help achieve the pact between Israelis and Palestinians that had eluded his predecessors.

But his move was never about resolving one of the world’s most diplomatically challenging matters; it was done to honour a pledge to the evangelicals and pro-Israel hardliners who voted him into the presidency. Instead, he has made the possibility of an agreement more difficult by angering Muslims, provoking extremists and damaging his country’s ability to be an honest and fair broker in negotiations.

‘Trump pulled the trigger’: scenes of outrage and joy follow US declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital

Until Trump’s announcement, no nation had recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; all 86 countries with diplomatic relations have their embassies in Tel Aviv. Israel’s government has always been located in Jerusalem, which is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians. But Palestinians also claim its eastern section, captured by Israel from Jordan during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and since settled by 200,000 Israelis. Under a deal struck in Oslo in 1993, Israel pledged to negotiate the city’s status as the final part of a peace agreement.

The US Congress voted in 1995 to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but successive presidents have wisely avoided the topic. To do so would trample on the Oslo accord and damage Palestinian hopes for a separate nation. Little wonder, then, that Trump’s decision has won support only from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Elsewhere, it has been disparaged in degrees from disappointment to condemnation, with the loudest outrage being expressed in the Middle East by US allies Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey.

China, which has good relations with both Israelis and Palestinians, is similarly worried, knowing that tensions and instability will threaten investments and infrastructure projects in a region important to its “Belt and Road Initiative”. A foretaste of the potential unrest has appeared in protests that have begun outside US embassies in the Middle East. The Islamist Palestinian group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, said Trump’s decision would “open the doors of hell” against American interests in the region.

Trump claims to be the consummate deal maker, but he has shown a lack of skill with his announcement on Jerusalem. In putting self-interest ahead of all else, he has ignored warnings and threatened stability in a region that is too easily prone to violence and unrest.