Week of December 8th, 2017

Trump Recognizes Jerusalem

as Capital of Israel

Why? Why Now? What Does it Mean?

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced that the US was recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel and that the US embassy would be moving to Jerusalem.

The timing of Trump’s statement is curious given the fact that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been trying to revive peace negotiations with Saudi help.

Speaking from the Diplomatic Reception room at the White House, Trump officially made the announcement.

“I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Trump said.

The President repeatedly addressed concerns about a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians being hindered as a result of the recognition. He argued failing to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as verified by law and Congress through the Jerusalem Embassy Act, has done nothing to move the region closer to a peace deal.

“We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies of the past. Old challenges demand new approaches,” Trump said. “The record is in, after two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a peace agreement.” The President said he is committed to the peace process and will support a two-state solution so long as both the Israelis and Palestinians agree to it.

“We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians,” Trump said. “I’ve judged this course action to be in the best interest of the United States of America,” he continued. “My announcement today marks the beginning of a new approach to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”
This recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was not a total surprise. During the presidential campaign, Trump had made it clear that he intended to recognize Jerusalem as the capital. Of course, other presidents and presidential candidates had promised the same thing – Clinton, Bush, Obama, McCain, and Romney – but none had ever kept their campaign promise.

It all started with the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act.  The law required the U.S. to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by May 31, 1999, but conceded that the move could be put off for six months at a time as long as the President “determines and reports to Congress in advance that such suspension is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States.”

The law had nothing to do with foreign policy, but had everything to do with domestic politics. Senator Dole opposed such a move until he decided to run for president in 1996. His change was based on his hope to raise money from Jewish groups.

Not to be outdone, President Bill Clinton called for the embassy to eventually be moved to Jerusalem, even as he actively worked to kill Dole’s bill. The Clinton administration did argue that a ‘premature focus on Jerusalem’ could ‘undermine negotiations and complicate the chances for peace” – which set the stage for the president to stall the move for up to six months at a time.

Politics still define the move to Jerusalem amongst both Republicans and Democrats. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) wrote to President Trump this week, urging him not to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel or to announce he is moving the U.S. Embassy to the city.

However, exactly six months ago Tuesday, Senator Feinstein voted in favor of a resolution commemorating the 50th anniversary of Israel’s reunification of Jerusalem, and calling on the president to “abide by” the provisions of the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act. Feinstein also voted for the original bill on Oct. 24, 1995.

In addition, the last four Democratic Party platforms have recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Consequently, there was no surprise that in 2016 Trump, along with all of the other GOP candidates, made it clear that he intended to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

The difference, however, was that Trump, unlike the, other presidential candidates, actually intended to make the move.

The Washington Response

While Washington has repeatedly told voters that it supports the move to Jerusalem, the reality is that the foreign policy establishment strongly opposes it.

Foreign policy focuses on stability, not political promises. And, it is clear that recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital is destabilizing a traditionally unstable part of the world. While the move would please Israel, it will cause problems in an area that stretches from the Indian subcontinent to where the Atlantic Ocean meets North Africa.

For the State Department, there is a heightened risk to American employees in the region, in addition to American tourists. The move will also make it harder to get foreign support for American policy initiatives in the region. That’s why the State Department pushed Trump to avoid making such a move this week.

Needless to say, it poses a major roadblock to any movement in solving the Palestinian-Israeli peace problem. It also helps Russia expand its influence in the region.

The biggest immediate impact will be military. Although the war on ISIS is clearly in the final stages, this move will only upset many American allies inside and outside the Middle East and make it harder to earn their support. Even politicians, who personally don’t care one way or another about the move, will have to reconcile any pro-American policies with their citizens, who do care. How can an Iraqi politician advocate more cooperation with America, when the US makes such a pro-Israeli move?

There is also the fact that Trump’s move could encourage ISIS recruitment or renewed terrorist attacks.

The military problems go beyond the Middle East. Turkey is the anchor of NATO’s southern flank. And, though Erdogan has made it hard for America and Turkey to work together recently, this move will only further alienate Turkey and its military, which is second to the US in military manpower in NATO.

Domestic Considerations

Despite the foreign policy costs, there is a strong political aspect to the move. In 2016, The Gallup organization conducted a poll, asking voters if they supported moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They discovered that over half had no opinion or didn’t know enough about the issue. 24% supported the move, while 20% opposed the move.

However, for Republican politicians, Republican voters preferred the move.

Democrats, as a whole, were not in favor of the move. However, since Jews are more likely to vote Democratic, supporting the move is one way for Democratic politicians to secure their vote.

Clearly, Trump’s move has solidified his support amongst Republican voters. At the same time, since only 20% of voters oppose the move and they are more likely to be Democrats, he is not sacrificing any critical part of the American electorate that will be important for his reelection. There is also a benefit in that news about the move to Jerusalem will drown out the media focus on Trump’s legal problems.

Much of the political focus has been on evangelical Christian voters, who are more likely to be Republican and more likely to enthusiastically support the state of Israel. Unfortunately, most of the analysis on this group comes from the East Coast, where evangelical Christians are a small minority of the population. For instance, only 8% of residents of the nation’s capital, Washington DC, consider themselves evangelical Christians, while 52% of people from Tennessee consider themselves evangelical Christians. Other East Coast states also have few evangelical Christians, while most are found in the American interior and the South.

Yet, the Pew Research Centre report found that evangelical Christians are the largest single religious group in the United States — more than 25 per cent of the population.

This means that analysts based in the East Coast misunderstand how evangelicals think and vote – even though the Vice President is one.

This was seen in the comments of a MSNBC reporter Chris Matthews on Wednesday about Evangelicals. Matthews said support for Israel among Evangelicals comes from their “crazy ideas about Israel…it’s the Christian Evangelicals down there with their crazy ideas about Israel which is, I don’t know, mythical.”

“They don’t understand the situation over there, how tricky it is ethnically and tribally,” he added. “They don’t care because it’s a religious belief.”

Contrary to the stereotype that evangelical Christians are “stupid and poor,” they are better educated than many groups and are generally Middle Class wage earners. They generally have the same percentage of college degrees as the Christian faith as a whole. They also tend to mirror the earnings of other Christian groups. They are also more likely to vote, which is correlated with being better informed on current events than the average American.

Evangelical Christians, however, have an overriding sympathy for the State of Israel. Most of that comes from the fact that the historical roots of Christianity are found in the region and with the ancient Jews. It also helps that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu focuses on garnering evangelical Christian support every time he visits the US. This is clearly reflected in their voting patterns and support for Israel.

Meantime, some mainline Christian groups have denounced the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. The Catholic Pope Francis said he had “deep worry” about recent developments, and declared Jerusalem a unique and sacred place for Christians, Jews and Muslims that has a “special vocation for peace.”

“I cannot keep quiet about my deep worry about the situation that has been created in the last few days,” he said.

He appealed “that everyone respects the status quo of the city” according to U.N. resolutions.

However, Pope Francis is unpopular in the US, even amongst American Catholics. As a result, he has little political power to influence American Catholic voters.

Just as important, this was the type of Trump move that has endeared him to supporters and helped him win critical states in 2016.

Trump’s move shows that he is not an ordinary politician, which was one of the reasons he won. Every recent president has promised to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as a candidate, only to fail to deliver.  But not Trump.

Although many Washington observers thought this move was done to target the votes of Jewish and evangelical Christians, this point matters to many American voters who are tired of Washington, DC politics as usual and voted for Trump because he railed about the “Washington Swamp.”

Of course, a speech does not an embassy make. A site has to be obtained, security issues carefully examined, and a new building designed and built. Even after construction, large numbers of diplomats and local staff must be prepared to handle the extended protests that will happen and move to the new embassy. In the end, the move may very well take much longer than Trump promised.

In the end, it’s important to remember that this move is a political move – a dramatic political move by a president who is becoming well known for dramatic political moves.

While world leaders may decry the announcement, Trump is well aware that they do not vote. However, Republicans, who vote, will praise the move.

Just as important, it helps further define himself as the non-politician – the candidate who keeps his promises. For the 56% of Americans who have no opinion on the embassy move to Jerusalem, they will take note of the fact that it was a campaign promise that was kept.