Trump’s Jerusalem Decision Hurts America
By: David Hervey
Editor's Note: This is part of our "Two Perspectives" series. You can find a different view on this issue here.
On December 6, the Trump Administration decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv, its current location. President Trump claimed “this course of action to be in the best interests of the United States of America, and the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
To someone unfamiliar with the conflict, this decision may appear uncontroversial: Israel claims the entire city of Jerusalem to be its capital, and most of its governmental institutions are located there. Yet this claim contradicts Palestinian plans to locate the capital of a Palestinian state in East Jerusalem, which was forcibly taken over by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, and has not been returned. While President Trump made no mention of whether the US will recognize the entire city as Israel’s, this move clearly shifts the balance in Israel’s favor. Perhaps more importantly, whether or not the move helps the cause of peace between Israel and Palestine, it carries significant costs for the United States and few, if any, benefits.
Soon after announcing that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel President Trump released his administration’s National Security Strategy. The key phrase of this strategy, and one that he has repeated many times since he entered politics, is “America First.” I do not intend to argue the merits of “America First” or the new National Security Strategy, but there is little reason to believe that recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel puts America first. Despite President Trump’s claim that move would be “in the best interests of the United States,” he provided little evidence to support this asserion. President Trump has argued that the move was necessary as part of a new approach to Israel-Palestine relations. A new approach may be necessary, but there is no reason to believe that this approach will be any more fruitful than the old one: indeed, it is a message to the world that the United States is on Israel’s side, rather than Palestine’s, and such a biased actor cannot be a good mediator.
American Conservatives have often viewed US assistance to Israel as good in itself, yet this assertion is dubious: a win for Israel is not necessarily a win for the United States, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s interest is not identical to the American national interest. President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel is clearly a win for Netanyahu and for those Israelis who prefer a more confrontational approach to Palestine, but it does not seem to be a win for the United States -- the move does not put America first, it puts Israel first. Indeed, US and Israeli interests have diverged in the past, such as Israel’s nuclear proliferation and material support to proliferation elsewhere. While many Conservatives argue that Israel has been a consistent US ally, they ignore Israel’s history of espionage and other actions that harm the interests and sovereignty of the United States, including the theft of nuclear weapons secrets .
The recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel, despite its dubious benefits, has many costs. Namely, this move puts at risk US efforts to cooperate with numerous actors in the Middle East and elsewhere. President Trump, already wildly unpopular with Muslims worldwide, was sharply criticized by leaders of Muslim countries for the decision. As President Trump himself has noted, it is necessary to cooperate with the Islamic world generally to defeat radical Islamic terrorism, and to cooperate with mainly-Muslim Middle Eastern countries to bring an end to the persistent instability that has plagued the region.
Two examples of cooperation between the United States and regional partners that could be hampered by President Trump’s decision include the Yemen conflict (which the administration has recently taken an interest in), and the continuing battle against ISIS in Syria. Saudi Arabia has intervened in Yemen’s civil war, and has been criticized (including by another writer at this publication) for its violations of humanitarian norms, including bombing civilian targets and refusing to let aid organizations access vulnerable populations. The United States can try to use its influence in Saudi Arabia to improve the humanitarian situation in Yemen. However, the decision about Jerusalem will likely diminish US influence on Saudi Arabia by enraging the Saudi people and leaders.
The Trump Administration’s decision on Jerusalem will also risk the fight against ISIS. Turkey has been involved in the conflict, and is the only regional state with both the means and the will to intervene against ISIS in Syria, where Bashar Assad’s government is still part of the problem rather than part of the solution. It is clearly in the interests of the United States to see ISIS degraded and ultimately destroyed, as then-President Obama set as a goal more than three years ago. Yet relations with Turkey have taken a turn for the worse in recent years, including a high-profile incident in which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the American ambassador to Turkey. If the United States becomes unwilling or unable to cooperate with Turkey, US influence over the post-war settlement of Syria will be ceded to Russia and Iran, who cannot be reasonably expected to respect US interests. In fact, Iran has already used its influence in Syria to support the Hezbollah terrorist group which has carried out numerous attacks against Americans. Yet President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has been criticized more harshly by Turkish leaders than perhaps by any others. Again, Trump’s entirely symbolic decision, which does little other than signal that the United States is on Israel’s side, has a very real cost, harming American interests in the wider Middle East and ceding influence to competitor states such as Russia and Iran. The stakes are especially high given Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, which still exist and have been used against civilians despite international attempts to remove them. With Russia’s and Iran’s own questionable histories with weapons of mass destruction, the United States cannot leave the job of counter-proliferation to these historical hostile and irresponsible actors.
The decision seems largely motivated by President Trump’s desire to maintain a campaign promise and bolster his support with voters who have seen few legislative or foreign policy accomplishments. For President Trump, the harm to US interests and the Israel-Palestine peace process may merit bolstered approval ratings. President Trump claims that to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is merely to accept reality. That may be true. As noted by President Trump himself, Jerusalem is the seat of Israel’s government. The move is in direct contradiction to the President’s own promise to put America first. President Trump stood in front of portrait of George Washington when announcing the move, but would have done well to remember Washington’s Farewell Address, in which our first President warned against becoming entangled in foreign affairs that do little to advance the interests of the United States. I put to President Trump a version of the question that President Washington put to the American people in his Farewell Address: why, by interweaving our destiny with that of Israel, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of their ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?