It is a city central to the beliefs of three major religions. It should be a place of peace. Instead, it is the center of a feud of faith.
And now Donald Trump has entered this emotional debate over the status of Jerusalem with a decision rooted more in domestic politics than foreign policy.
His announcement that the US is formally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will move its embassy there from Tel Aviv has won praise from the conservative Israeli government and scorn from the Palestinian leadership.
But this decision has more to do with the Paris Climate Accords and the Iran nuclear deal than the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Here is why.
As a candidate for president, Donald Trump rallied his supporters with chants of “America First.” From the start, it became obvious that he did not care for the niceties of diplomacy or the impact of his actions on other nations. The views of his political base came first… and fulfilling those campaign promises, no matter how misguided, became paramount.
And so he pulled out of the Paris agreement… disavowed the Iran deal and left its fate up to Congress… and now he has put America’s role as a peace broker in the Middle East at risk by placating key elements of his political base with his stand on Jerusalem.
Evangelical Christians, joined by Jewish allies on the political right, have been pushing successive American presidents for years to take such action, quoting chapter and verse of the bible to bolster their case.
In response to their growing political clout, the US Congress passed a law in 1995 requiring America to move the embassy and respect Israel’s choice of Jerusalem as its capital. But Congress also provided an out — giving the president the authority to sign a six-month waiver to delay the move on national security grounds.
Every president since then — Clinton, Bush and Obama — signed consecutive waivers. Trump did too during his early months of office.
But when the time came to renew the waiver in early December, he broke with his predecessors, fulfilling that campaign promise to “put America first” once again.
Well, maybe not all of America… but certainly his supporters on the right.
They include evangelical Christians, who contend America must side with Israel no matter what, believing the modern state is the direct descendent of the Israel of the bible. They started pressing the Jerusalem issue with Trump during the campaign, making clear they considered it to be a top priority.
Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, summed up their views this way in an interview with the New York Times:
“In the meetings I was in, it was clearly communicated that evangelicals and Bible-believing Christians see a special relationship with Israel.”
They talked and Trump listened. He also listened to Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino magnate from Las Vegas and a staunch supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Adelson ramped up the pressure. In 2016, he gave millions to Republican causes, including $20 million to a group supporting the Trump campaign. After the inauguration, he stayed in regular touch with the White House, urging the president to act on Jerusalem.
When Trump announced his decision on the status of Jerusalem, Adelson’s joy was clear. He owns a newspaper in Israel and the headline “Thank You, Mr President” was splashed across its front page.
Meanwhile, the Republican Jewish Committee took out an ad in the New York Times with the slogan: “President Trump, You Promised. You Delivered.”
For Trump, there was no doubt the political pluses outweighed the minuses.
Those costs include the loss of America’s status as an honest broker, and the chance for more violence in one of the most volatile corners of the world. The Jerusalem announcement also likely damaged potential American outreach to Arab allies who could help with everything from Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the bloodshed in Syria. As one Republican with top national security credentials told the Axios news service:
“If nothing was going on and everything was perfect in the world this would be fine. But we are fighting for influence right now, and asking for support from our Gulf Allies. This upsets everyone in the Middle East except Israel.”
And there is more than a bit of irony to all this. While Trump announced his intent to move the embassy to Jerusalem, he actually had to sign another waiver because it will take years to do it.
Which means he gets the kudos from his base, damages the peace process, and leaves the mess for a potential successor to clean up.
The Los Angeles Times described President Trump’s strategy this way:
“In his view, he is the president who pushes through toward ‘historic’ change while those around him urge equivocation. He is the president who bluntly scorns the judgment of elites. And he is the president who tallies ‘promises kept.”
In other words, none of us should be surprised by his decision on Jerusalem.
It was short-sighted… politically driven… and classic Trump!