Day: December 6, 2017
President Trump today announced the US officially recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and initiated the process of enabling the US embassy to move there from Tel Aviv.
What’s wrong with that?
As former Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer explained this morning on NPR, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It has been for almost 70 years and will continue to be. No one I know doubts the facts.
But the status of Jerusalem is in dispute: we don’t know its ultimate borders, whether some of it may some day be part of a Palestinian state, and there is no agreement on how it will in the future be governed. Trump’s move ignores these facts.
More importantly, it tilts the playing field, once again, in Israel’s direction. Trump offered nothing to the Palestinians besides platitudes. He might have said the US could envisage their capital also in Jerusalem, presumably in the eastern part of the city that is majority Palestinian. He might have limited what he said about Israel’s capital to the western portion of the city, where all the Israeli institutions he mentioned are located. He might have suggested in some other way that the US has an evenhanded view and will act as an honest broker in trying to resolve the ongoing disputes.
He didn’t. While advocating moderation, tolerance, and reasoned debate, Trump essentially aligned himself with extremist Americans and Israelis, who see no reason to accommodate Palestinian interests or interest in having a state of their own. Trump still wants, he says, to facilitate a lasting peace. He even says it with unusual passion and conviction. But what he has done makes compromise more difficult, not less.
How will the Muslim world react? Some fear violence. Certainly there will be demonstrations against what Trump has done. And demonstrations in the Middle East all too often result in violence. But a lot of Arabs have other things to worry about these days besides the Palestinians, who were already convinced Trump wasn’t going to do anything good from their point of view. A few rocket launches may satisfy some.
The people most aroused and likely to indulge in violence are the Iranians and Sunni extremists (especially Al Qaeda and the Islamic State). The elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards are not known as the Al Quds (Jerusalem) force for nothing. While Trump claims to be leading a campaign against both, his move on Jerusalem will inspire his adversaries. Look for them to invent symbolic, likely violent, acts against Israel and the US.
Hard to imagine any other significant government will follow Trump’s lead. The Europeans are dead set against it, as they rightly view it as making peace more difficult to negotiate, not easier. The gap that has opened between the US and our European allies on the Iran nuclear deal will widen. The Gulf Arabs, some of whom Trump and the Israelis have been courting as allies against Iran, will find themselves hamstrung and unable to move further in that direction.
Trump is in many ways his own worst enemy. Now he has made negotiations between Israel and Palestine more difficult, widened the rift with Europe, and hampered the alliance he hoped for against Iran. All in a single stroke.
PS: The slurring of his speech is noticeable. He is supposedly a teetotaler. Teeth don’t fit right?
PSS: Claudia Trevisan of the Brazilian daily O Estado de Sao Paolo was the first to get to me with questions. I answered;
A: It can be a broker as long as both sides agree it can be one. The Palestinians are saying no, but I’m not sure that will last.
Q: The president has said it is not prejudging the outcome of boundaries and the future status of Jerusalem. Can this nuance reduce the impact of the announcement?
A: It’s better than not saying it, but I don’t think it mitigates much.
Q: Can this decision help in any way help the peace process?
A: I don’t think so. It is more likely to kill it, at least for the time being.
Q: Do you expect an increase of violence in the region and of terrorist acts against the US as a consequence of the decision?
A: I don’t like to predict an increase in violence, since then people start feeling they have to fulfill the prophecy. But both violence in the region and against the US are possible.
Apologies to Khulood Fahim, who prepared this piece in a timely way. It got stuck in my queue:
On November 20, Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute, Mohammed Alyahya of the Atlantic Council, and Tony Badran of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies attempted with moderator Lee Smith of the Hudson Institute to answer the question, “Is Lebanon Saudi Arabia’s New Zone of Confrontation with Iran?” The event took place at the Hudson Institute and was live-streamed online, which is how I accessed the discussion. The question, timely in light of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s recent resignation announcement from Saudi Arabia, was answered from a Saudi perspective (Alyahya), a Lebanese perspective (Badran), and an American perspective (Doran), all three of whom agreed with each other on several issues.
That the media has falsely portrayed recent events and Saudi Arabia’s intentions was a common theme presented by the speakers. Alyahya stated that there were two important issues at hand. First, Prime Minister Hariri cited several reasons for his resignation, including the dysfunctional nature of the Lebanese government and Hezbollah’s political control. The media’s narrative, however, has assumed that Hariri had been detained and placed under house arrest by Saudi Arabia, and has disregarded the reasons that Hariri himself put forth for his resignation. The second issue is the fear mongering efforts about strikes against Hezbollah by Saudi Arabia, the US, and Israel, when no such intentions are present in any of those countries. These tactics, Alyahya maintained, are efforts to distract from “real problems” in Lebanon. The image of Saudi Arabia as an aggressor is one that the US media has been perpetuating as well, Doran added. The popularity of this image is due to two factors: persisting Obama foreign policy views that support Iran’s influence in Lebanon, and efforts to contradict President Trump, who is close to Saudi Arabia.
Badran also offered American policies from the Obama administration as reasons for the negative light in which Saudi Arabia is portrayed. In 2013, when Hezbollah began its military involvement in Syria, causing retaliation in the form of attacks in Beirut, Obama’s policy was to share intelligence with the Lebanese Armed Forces and to work with Hezbollah to limit such threats. The American goal of preserving Lebanon’s stability actually served to maintain Hezbollah’s power, Badran commented. In 2015, the basis upon which the US was supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces changed from UN Resolution 1701 to the portrayal of the Armed Forces as partners in counterterrorism efforts directed primarily at “Sunni jihadism,” a category in which the Obama administration also included Saudi Arabia. Such a narrative, then, made of Saudi Arabia an enemy, and further allowed for a “pro-Iran policy” in Lebanon.
Continuing to present an alternate picture, the speakers discussed the true extent of the power possessed by Prime Minister Hariri and Hezbollah. The initial idea that Hariri’s return to power in 2016 could limit Hezbollah’s power was erroneous, Alyahya began, and Saudi Arabia had opposed it from the beginning. Badran agreed, saying that the lesson learned in the last few weeks is that there are no strong Lebanese actors opposing Hezbollah, and that the government can be considered an “accomplice” to the organization. Echoing the Saudi stance, Badran opined that their original mistake was to allow Hariri to return to power in the first place, and that their recent push for his resignation was needed, albeit a “year too late.” Hezbollah’s power can be best imagined when seen in a regional context, as the organization is not merely a Lebanese problem. Hezbollah’s influence can be seen in multiple countries and on many levels, including in logistical planning on the behalf of Houthi rebels in Yemen, and in military involvement in Syria and elsewhere as Iranian proxies.
Saudi policy, Doran contended, is a message to Washington that there is no Lebanese alternative to Hezbollah’s power, and that, like Iran and Russia in Syria, Hezbollah has been building its power in Lebanon through the establishment of “red lines”- boundaries that it forces everyone to respect. Despite this, Doran explained that American policy so far has adopted an indirect approach, avoiding confrontation with Iranian proxies and instead supporting its own proxies, such as the Abadi regime in Iraq and the Lebanese Armed Forces. This approach has not been effective, as American proxies “never win” in clashes.
Badran stated that there is a desire in Lebanon to maintain the status quo, encouraging Saudi Arabia to deal with the Hezbollah by confronting Iran elsewhere and not Lebanon. Badran criticized this by saying that Lebanon is critical to Hezbollah’s activities, as it is a training ground and a base for its actors. “Lebanon,” he maintained, “is an exporter of destabilization to the region.”
Most pertinent in the discussion was what the panelists considered widespread misrepresentation of the situation, which has resulted in harmful misinterpretations, but Badran thought conflict or a “proxy war” in Lebanon unlikely.