Trump’s Jerusalem Policy: Regional Reactions, or Lack Thereof
U.S. President Donald Trump recognized a unified Jerusalem, including its occupied eastern sector, as Israel’s official capital on Wednesday. Immediately after the declaration, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that, within three to four years, the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv will relocate to Jerusalem after navigating numerous bureaucratic processes
The decision, pursuant to the congressionally-ordained Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 and in accordance with the presidency’s preeminence in international affairs, reversed decades of bipartisan executive policy and received predictable praise within Israel.
"This is a historic day. [Jerusalem has] been the capital of Israel for nearly 70 years. Jerusalem has been the focus of our hopes, our dreams, our prayers for three millennia. Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
However, the Fatah government perceives East Jerusalem as the de facto capital of an eventual Palestinian state, and the Islamic world, in equal magnitude to the widespread jubilance and approval within Israel, expressed its near-universal denouncement of the presidential proclamation. Despite Trump’s claims to the contrary, his decision will likely preclude America from arbitrating Palestinian-Israeli peace accords moving forward, and on Thursday, IR Insider’s Zoie Brauser analyzed the declaration’s impact on Palestinian-Israeli relations.
The Muslim world – despite deep geopolitical divisions opened by the Saudi-Iranian proxy war – has historically found commonality in Jerusalem, the ancient city where Muhammad was said to have ascended to heaven in 620 CE.
The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the Trump administration and warned that its recognition of an Israeli Jerusalem could spark an additional Palestinian intifada.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has always emphasized that the main causes behind destabilization and insecurity in the Middle East are continued occupation of the Palestinian lands by the Israeli regime, the US’ full and all-out support for the Zionist regime, and depriving the oppressed nation of Palestine of their basic rights to establish an independent state for their own with al-Quds [Jerusalem] as its capital.”
Arab leaders concurred with their regional rival. In a White House press release, Trump claimed that his precedent-shattering action was reached after engaging America’s “international partners on [the Jerusalem] issue.” Yet, in the context of the greater MENA region, it is difficult to imagine who, beyond Israel itself, would publicly advocate such a rash decision (although private considerations are an entirely different question).
Ayman Safadi, the Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, called the United States’ recognition of an Israeli Jerusalem a violation of international law, promised to advocate for an independent Palestinian state, and claimed that violent extremism “thrives on exploiting injustice.” Egyptian and Turkish officials outlined similar concerns.
Saudi Arabia, in spite of King Salman and Crown Prince bin Salman’s close ties to Trump and Jared Kushner, respectively, said that it regretted the U.S. president’s decision, which could potentially undermine the Sunni hegemon's efforts to push the Arab Peace Initiative – a platform that aims to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, to demarcate Israeli borders according to pre-1967 boundaries (reserving East Jerusalem for the Palestinians), and to fairly address the Palestinian right of return.
The Arab League ratified the initiative in 2002 and reaffirmed its principles in 2007, and on Tuesday, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit warned Trump that any measures altering Jerusalem’s legal and political status would incur negative repercussions throughout the region. The coalition of Arab states will hold an emergency meeting on Saturday to determine an appropriate response to Trump’s declaration.
In light of multinational rivalries and entrenched hostilities in Yemen and Syria, the Islamic world’s unified, vehement rejection of Wednesday’s proclamation speaks volumes about the emotional importance (and political absurdity) of Trump’s Jerusalem policy. However, considering the region’s high dependence on U.S. economic and military aid, it is difficult to discern how, if at all, MENA states will attempt to punish American interests.
In all probability, Trump’s controversial decision will incite popular outrage throughout the international community, but America’s diplomatic relations with its Arab allies should remain intact.
Saudi Arabia’s influential crown prince has worked hard to secure American foreign investment to further his economic diversification plan, Saudi Vision 2030, and neither he nor his regional Arab peers (many of whom have drafted similar economic development agendas) will offer tangible resistance to Trump’s unilateral recognition of an Israeli Jerusalem. On the contrary, several Israeli media outlets have suggested that government-sanctioned criticisms of Trump’s policy, although prevalent, are largely superficial and indicative of the Arab leaders’ tacit willingness to sacrifice Palestinian interests to procure better relations with the Jewish state.
In this vein, Pan-Arab media outlet Al-Araby Al-Jadeed reported that the Saudi royal family has preemptively encouraged state media outlets to downplay the significance of Trump’s declaration. The Saudi government has also encouraged its citizens abroad to avoid the massive wave of anti-American protests that erupted throughout the Muslim world.
It is naive to assume that Arab states possess an inherent interest to protect Arabs and Muslims beyond their borders, and if anything, the Saudi-led bloc’s campaign of terror in Yemen indicates that, above all else, preserving a regional hierarchy (and mitigating Iranian influence) takes precedence over humanitarian issues. Israel and Saudi Arabia remain wary of Tehran’s tactical gains in Syria and Lebanon, and Riyadh’s meager dismissal of Trump’s Jerusalem policy demonstrates its willingness to cooperate (at least covertly) with the Jewish state.
If, after Saturday’s emergency meeting, the Arab League balks at levying significant sanctions against Israel and/or the United States, then the Palestinians should, if they do not already, feel wholly alone in their struggle against Israeli intrigue. As the purview of Arab nation-state interests retracts and increasingly focuses on domestic concerns, “Arab unity” and Palestinian suffering become an afterthought.