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Editorial | Mr Trump’s diplomatic arson

Published:Sunday | December 10, 2017 | 12:00 AM

If Donald Trump's formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital was part of a serious effort or grand strategy to advance an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, we might have felt that he's innocently engaging in folly. But Mr Trump's move bears the hallmarks of a cynical, self-serving political act, done largely to gin up his political base.

In the circumstance, Donald Trump has behaved not so much like a bad, amateur pyrotechnic whose experiments are likely to go bad; he is more like an arsonist who has set a distracting fire with potentially destructive consequences. Indeed, while we hope that it doesn't come to this, the sporadic outbreaks of violence in the Palestinian territories could well erupt into a Middle East conflagration.

What, though, is obvious is that Mr Trump has weakened America's role as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, undermining the revival of settlement talks and, therefore, pushing back the possibility of a settlement, as his vice-president, Mike Pence, will no doubt discover during his imminent swing through the region.

The western part of Jerusalem has been in the hands of Israel since their 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war that established the Jewish state. They grabbed East Jerusalem during the 1967 conflict. The city has holy sites sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

While Israel declared Jerusalem to be its capital and the US Congress passed a law in 1995 for the American Embassy to be moved to the city, no major country, until Mr Trump's action last week, officially recognised the Israeli action. For, given that the Palestinians, too, want the city to be the capital of their future state and the many UN resolutions calling for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian issue based on the pre-1967 war borders, the international community has insisted that the status of Jerusalem should be settled in the context of those broader negotiations.

 

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In the case of the United States, the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act allows for periodic waivers by the president of its application, based on security considerations. Presidents, until Mr Trump, triggered the waiver out of concern that doing otherwise could derail the peace process and possibly remove America from its pivotal role of guiding the effort.

Mr Trump argued that his action did not equate to "taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders". "Those questions are up to the parties involved," he said.

That argument is fundamentally at odds with an action that changes the dynamics of the negotiations - a logic that was readily grasped by the many world leaders, including America's new best friends in the Middle East, allies who rejected Mr Trump's decision. Indeed, the greater beneficiaries of Mr Trump's decision will probably be the Israeli hard right, who are against the establishment of a Palestinian state and the Arabs and radical Islamic movements that don't accept Israel's right to exist.

Mr Trump's action, which came a month after the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, is tied, we believe, to the problems he faces at home and efforts to shore up his political base by demonstrating that he is a man of action who fulfils his campaign promises. Short of major legislative achievements, Mr Trump is beset by investigations into his campaign's possible collusion with Russia during the US presidential election campaign, as well as low approval ratings.

Other presidents, he said, had promised, but failed to deliver on declaring Jerusalem Israel's capital. "Today, I am delivering," he said.

That, to us, is a cynical calculation that endangers the world, unless Mr Trump, on this matter, gets lucky. We hope he does.