I’ve always heard that perhaps the toughest deal to make is the deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians”, United States President Donald Trump told his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, in May. “We’ll get it done.” In an act of diplomatic vandalism with few parallels, Trump has dynamited prospects of that deal by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The decision to move the Embassy of the United States there from Tel Aviv is not only notable for its negative outcomes — feeding rage across West Asia, and sabotaging prospects of a negotiated Israel-Palestine peace. It is also remarkable because of the utter absence of redeeming features. The decision is not conditioned on Israel stopping its programme of building settlements in occupied land. It does not call on Tel Aviv to take steps towards recognising the Palestinian state. Israel has not even been obligated to protect the rights of the approximately 1,00,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who live beyond the city’s so-called “separation barrier”, cut off from city services.
How does one make sense of this bizarre action? For one, Trump’s core Israel-Palestine team — Jason Greenblatt, David Friedman and son-in-law Jared Kushner — is remarkable for its lack of experience on West Asia. There is also ideology. In spite of his stated commitment to Israel-Palestine dialogue, family trusts Kushner is tied to have made financial contributions to organisations building illegal West Bank settlements. Israel supporter and tycoon Sheldon Adelson, a darling of the United States far-right, has been amongst Trump’s biggest campaign donors. Facing heat from many United States Jews for his failure to condemn neo-Nazis, Trump may well see pandering to Israel’s policies as a way of winning their support. In addition, the Christian right-wing sees freeing Jerusalem of Muslims as a religious imperative. Thus, the Jerusalem decision can be read as part of Trump’s anti-Muslim demagoguery.
Had a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital been on the horizon, Trump’s action would have made sense — but it is not, and that is what the world must now push for. For reflective Palestinians and Israelis, the status-quo reflects the worst of all possible worlds. Palestinians suffer under occupation; Israel, in turn, faces a volatile region and global isolation. In the long term, moreover, Israel’s occupation is unsustainable; no nation-state can indefinitely maintain second-class status for half of those living in territories it rules. New Delhi’s decision to avoid following the United States’ lead reflects well on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomatic team: Instability in West Asia, which Trump’s action will fuel, is bad news for India. Pragmatism and ethics both converge in this case — and Trump’s action fails both tests.