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Vitaly Naumkin

Academic Director of the RAS Institute for Oriental Studies, RAS Full Member, RIAC member

The recent decision of President Donald Trump with regard to Jerusalem is just one more surprise in the endless series of surprises in the Middle East. Numerous analysts overlook the fact that there are actually two separate parts to the decision, which has proved fateful for the Middle East. It is a double toe loop. The first part is about recognizing the whole of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while the second is about moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. These two points are interrelated. More than this, one seems to logically stem from the other. But, as they say, opinions may differ.

Trump’s decision to bury the already modest results secured by Barack Obama to improve Washington’s relations with the Islamic and Arabic worlds, shape an image of the United States that is not guided by Israel in its foreign policy and set a course that can be defined as neutral with regard to the conflict in the Middle East.

It delivers a deadly blow to the war on terror, and raises the threat of terrorist, extremist and radical religious and nationalist organizations to mobilize new supporters, with terrorists and extremists taking advantage of the desperation of the Palestinians and the fury of Muslims.

It also undermines the reputation of the United Nations, the significance of the UN Security Council’s resolutions (which were passed with the participation of the United States) and, in the broader sense, international law.


The recent decision of President Donald Trump with regard to Jerusalem is just one more surprise in the endless series of surprises in the Middle East. Numerous analysts overlook the fact that there are actually two separate parts to the decision, which has proved fateful for the Middle East. It is a double toe loop. The first part is about recognizing the whole of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while the second is about moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. These two points are interrelated. More than this, one seems to logically stem from the other. But, as they say, opinions may differ.

While the situation in the White House has been evolving precisely in this direction ever since Trump's election, I must admit that, until the last moment, I did not want to believe that the president would take such a reckless step. There is no doubt that the move was made under the strong influence of a small group of incompetent people who determine Trump’s Middle Eastern Policy (leading U.S. experts specializing in the region that I have had a chance to talk with see them as incompetent). Their names are well known, as is the motivation behind their recommendations to the President of the United States, who quite enjoys surprising everybody. At least three of them are believed to be supporters of radical right-wing forces in Israel. Shibley Telhami, a Washington-based analyst at the Brookings Institution, wrote: “His advisors live in their own bubble, reinforced by unprecedented inexperience.” At the same time, polls indicate that 81 per cent of Americans, including 71 per cent of Republicans, would prefer Trump to rely on experts in Middle Eastern diplomacy, not inexperienced members of his family and personal lawyers.

It is true that Trump is not abandoning his policy of seeking a truce between Israel and Palestine. However, if we are to believe a leaked plan allegedly devised by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and submitted by the latter to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salmad Al Saud, handing East Jerusalem over to the Palestinians as the capital of their future state (which appears to be nothing more than a handful of scattered territories). It is hard to imagine any Palestinian leader agreeing to such a plan. There are far more painless and certainly less disgraceful ways to commit suicide. On the other hand, as Steven Simon, former United States National Security Council senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, states in an article for The New York Times International Edition, “For all the talk from successive administrations, a Palestinian-Israeli peace has never been a strategic imperative for Washington”.

Let us list just a few of the possible consequences of Trump’s decisions.

Trump’s decision to bury the already modest results secured by Barack Obama to improve Washington’s relations with the Islamic and Arabic worlds, shape an image of the United States that is not guided by Israel in its foreign policy and set a course that can be defined as neutral with regard to the conflict in the Middle East.

It delivers a deadly blow to the war on terror, and raises the threat of terrorist, extremist and radical religious and nationalist organizations to mobilize new supporters, with terrorists and extremists taking advantage of the desperation of the Palestinians and the fury of Muslims.

It also undermines the reputation of the United Nations, the significance of the UN Security Council’s resolutions (which were passed with the participation of the United States) and, in the broader sense, international law.

It also affects the Middle East Quartet, which was on its last legs as it was, and is now a good as dead. Any attempts to resuscitate the format would be futile. Equally irrecoverable is one of the few channels of constructive foreign political interaction between Russia and the United States. This work needs to be continued, but merely for the sake of the process. There certainly will be no results.

It also undermines the positions of the moderate Palestinian leaders, who are already having a difficult time defending their views before their more radically inclined fellow countrymen.

It also damages the reputation of the allies of the United States around the world and in the Middle East, weakening the United States’ partnership with a number of influential Islamic states – states which had until now been the country’s closest partners. We are talking primarily here about Turkey, a NATO member. The partnership will probably remain, but there will be no more trust. On December 8, Le Figaro published the following headline about Trump’s demarche: “The U.S. President isolates his country in the international arena by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.” President of France Emmanuel Macron stated in no uncertain terms that Trump’s decision contravened the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, which does not seem to bother the President of the United States. On the contrary, he appears to derive some kind of pleasure from it. It will be difficult for the Gulf monarchies, which are closely linked to the United States and are now starting to court Israel. Jordan, which is living through difficult times of its own, appears to be in a particularly difficult situation.

Trump’s decision strengthens the positions of Iran, the exact opposite to what the President of the United States wants. We are reminded of 2003, when the United States’ invasion of Iraq made Iran the most influential external force in that country.

The decision is ruining the very concept of the Middle Eastern peace process, which contains such issues as refugees, borders and Jerusalem (the most important and difficult issue), all of which lying at the core of the talks on the so-called final status.

The wave of violence caused by Trump’s decision will be difficult to stop, as the U.S. President does not back down from his word. Anti-U.S. sentiments will continue to mount in the Islamic world, which will put the lives of American citizens at risk. The threat does not just come from the Middle East, but also from Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.

Trump is doing a disservice to Israel, which needs peace with Palestine in order to secure a safe and comfortable life for its citizens.

Talking about the possible variants, some of my colleagues, the most authoritative American experts on the region, are attempting to move Trump to rectify the damage that his decision has most definitely done to the interests of the United States. In particular, Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel and now a professor at Princeton University, suggested in an article for the New York Daily News that Trump did not have to repeal the decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. All he had to do was announce that, in the future, when the plan to create two states in Palestine is implemented, he would also recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. Trump might also announce that, following the implementation of this plan, he would open a U.S. embassy to that new state in Jerusalem. It is, however, unlikely that the overconfident President will heed the voices of those naively aiming to “correct” his policy.

Why does Trump Need This? And Why is he Doing it Now?

Some believe that Trump wants to suck up to Israel’s right wing (even though much seems have already been done in that direction), and to Netanyahu in particular, who might capitalize on this and avoid prosecution. On the other hand, Trump, as people have come to believe, is primarily guided by domestic policy considerations. Polls carried out by the University of Maryland in November 2017 indicate that 59 per cent of Americans would prefer for the president to abstain from taking sides in the Israel–Palestine conflict. In addition, 57 per cent, including a majority of Republicans, believe he is leaning towards Israel. Another survey, conducted by the Brookings Institution, indicates that 63 per cent of those polled, including 44 per cent of Republicans, are against moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Even among the respondents who represent Trump’s main beacon of support in U.S. society, Evangelist Christians, only 53 per cent support the moving of the embassy, with as much as 40 per cent being against the move.

Or does he want to appease the Evangelicals? But we have already seen that not everything is clear-cut with the Evangelicals. Nevertheless, Netanyahu is targeting this segment of U.S. society. According to Steven Simon, Netanyahu believes that the next generation of Americans, or the one after that, will no longer contain liberal Jews, and that Evangelical Christians alongside Orthodox Jews will stand up to counteract America’s pressure on Israel.

Or is Trump’s idea to simply shock the international community once again, forcing it to live with any decision that may take his fancy, even the most extravagant ones?

If Netanyahu hopes that the common interest of Israel and Saudi Arabia to restrain Iran will force King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammad to reconcile with the fact that all hopes have been lost for retaining Muslim control over at least some part of the third most significant city in the country (after Mecca and Medina), he is obviously wrong. Israel, and the United States in particular, have always underestimated the central place the Jerusalem issue takes in the eyes of Muslims. It is true that the Saudi Arabian rulers currently view Iran as a greater problem for themselves and the region than the Israel–Palestine conflict. However, the Saudi leader cannot possibly lose Jerusalem. James Dorsey, a well-known Singapore-based expert on the Middle East, believes that Mr. Trump’s recognition and any plan to grant Israel full control of Jerusalem would see the genie turning on the kingdom and its ruling family

It appears that the events in the region are giving Russia a window of opportunity just in time to revitalize the country’s weighted and respectful attitude towards all of its Middle Eastern partners and highlight its role as a unique mediator in conflicts.

They say that an experienced figure skater can do a double toe loop easily. Could the same be said of the President of the United States?

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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