A few days ago, Donald Trump made a statement that received wide response in the world: he expressed wish to see Jerusalem as the capital of Israel despite warnings by his Arab and European colleagues, more specifically, the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, the presidents of Egypt and Turkey, the prime minister of the United Kingdom and even the Pope.
We can’t say that Trump has fully ignored their concerns. In his statement, he also reaffirmed the United States’ adherence to the use of the “two states for two nations” principle in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And this was the core of his statement.
The shocking first declaration was followed by a statement that the final status of Jerusalem was subject to negotiation. He did not specify whether the whole of Jerusalem or only its western part should be the capital of Israel. So, he made no final decision on the status of Jerusalem.
During his presidential campaign, Trump promised the Jewish community of the United States and its key ally in the Middle East, Israel, that once he became President, the U.S. Embassy to Israel would move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was his first step to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – for you can’t move your embassy to a city you don’t recognize as a capital, can you?
On Dec 6, Trump said that he was the first U.S. president to have expressed true commitment to fulfill the Congress’s 1995 act to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. None of his predecessors dared to do it for fear of problems in the Middle East. In June 2017, even Trump postponed the fulfillment of the act. His argument was “to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.” But at the same time, he noted that “the question is not if that move happens, but only when.”
Now that the decision has been made, its realization may take months or even years. But the first step has been taken and now the Americans can be more confident in their contacts with the Israelis. And even if Trump fails to move the embassy by the end of his first term, he will have one more reason to hope that the American Jews will help him in his race for the second term.
Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner is believed to be the key promoter of Israel’s interests in the White House. But there is one more person who might have had a decisive role in this case: Vice President Michael Pence, an American whom the Israelis respect no less than they respect Trump and whom the Arabs call “Christian Zionist.”
Now let’s see what consequences Trump’s statement may have for the Middle East. The Arabs have already warned Trump that he has opened “the gates of hell.”
We may certainly witness disorders and clashes, but we can hardly expect a true escalation. Saudi Arabia and Egypt will hardly wish to spoil their relations with the United States as they have much more important a task to attend to: to keep the anti-Iranian coalition as active as possible. Israel can help them in the matter, so, they will hardly decide to turn their backs upon it now – especially as this will give more geopolitical points to Iran.
As a matter of fact, in his statement, Trump made it clear that it was for Israel and Palestine to settle their conflict and invited the sides to make the so-called “big deal.”
It is still unclear what this “big deal” is about. Trump’s team may still be working on it. But Trump needed a better picture of what is going on in the Middle East and his June 6 statement might have been just a way for him to gain it. He needs to know what the Arabs prefer now: to continue their conflict with Israel or to fight Iran. So, the statement was a signal for them to decide.
It has not wrecked the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. Even more, now Trump has more elements for attracting the Arabs. One of them is Iran. And if he succeeds in doing it, the Arabs will soon forget his statement and will not open “the gates of hell” wide.
EADaily Middle East Bureau