President Trump and the Israeli government will have foreseen and discounted a Palestinian “day of rage” and protests among Muslims everywhere in the wake of the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and plans to move its embassy there. They assume that this will all blow over because US allies such as the rulers of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt will be satisfied with pro-forma protests, and the Palestinians are too weak to do anything except demonstrate ineffectively.
The US and Israel could be miscalculating: when I lived in Jerusalem I came to believe that many dramatic events in Israel, such as shootings and bombings, often had less effect than the outside world expected. But anything involving Jerusalem itself, and above all its Muslim holy sites, had a much bigger impact than anybody had imagined.
The immediate consequence of Trump’s action is that the US becomes weaker because it has carried out another initiative of which the rest of the world disapproves. A superpower at the height of its strength might get away with such a demarche, but not a politically divided US, its influence already ebbing because of failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The move is so obviously against US foreign policy interests that it will further persuade other world leaders that Trump is an impossible ally.
The move could have other dangerous consequences. There is a myth that the Israeli-Palestinian struggle was not an issue that concerned Osama bin Laden or played a role in the rise of al-Qaeda. In fact, bin Laden’s speeches and writings are full of references to the Palestinians – and his first public utterances in the 1980s were calls for a boycott of American goods because of its backing for Israel.
The connection between the Palestinian question and 9/11 was played down at the time, particularly by neocon pundits and think tanks who claimed that the US could safely ignore the issue while pursuing an aggressive policy in Iraq. It is true that 9/11 damaged the Palestinians because they were marginalised as the US and its allies began a series of wars during which they largely disappeared from the news agenda.
But as the wars in Iraq and Syria come to an end, focus will shift back to Israel and the Palestinians. Isis and al-Qaeda have been defeated in their efforts to change regimes in Baghdad and Damascus. If they are going to survive and get support in the Muslim world, they will need to find a new enemy. Battered they may be, but they have far more activists and resources than bin Laden at the time of 9/11. The declaration on Jerusalem throws al-Qaeda-type movements a lifeline, just as they are facing complete defeat.
Trump inherited the war to eliminate the self-declared Caliphate from President Obama and has continued it unchanged. Most decisions about the conflict have in any case been taken by the Pentagon and not by the White House. Up to now the biggest change in US policy in the region has been the effort to end Obama’s détente with Iran and build up an anti-Iranian coalition. This will now become a more difficult job.
In October, Trump de-certified the nuclear deal with Iran, demonising the Iranians as the source of all instability in the region. He and his administration tend to conflate Iranians and Shias in much the same way as do Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchs of the Gulf. His National Security Adviser H R McMaster said in late October that “what is most important, not just for the United States but for all nations, is to confront the scourge of Hezbollah and to confront the scourge of the Iranians and the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps].”
It is unclear how far this belligerent rhetoric is going to turn into real military action. If Trump does want to confront Iran and the axis of states and paramilitary organisations it leads, then he has left it a bit late. The Iranian Shia side has triumphed in the war in Syria and Iraq against predominantly Sunni resistance, which was once backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The role of Hezbollah and the Shia paramilitary, Hashd al-Shaabi, will naturally diminish because there is no longer a war to fight and the central governments in Baghdad and Damascus are becoming stronger.
The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will make it easier for Tehran to call for all Muslims, Shia and Sunni, to stand together in defence of the Palestinians and the holy sites. It will make it more difficult, though not impossible, for Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to act with the US, move closer to Israel and portray Iran as the greatest threat in the region.
There is a broader consequence of the switch in US policy: there are some 1.5 billion Muslims in the world who are the majority in some 50 states and make up 22 per cent of the world’s population. None of them will be pleased by Trump’s latest action. The population of many of these countries, including some of the largest such as Turkey (80 million) and Pakistan (193 million), were already very anti-American before the Trump presidency. In 2012, polls showed that 74 per cent of Pakistanis considered the US as an enemy. Even this high figure is surpassed by Turkey where 82 per cent said this summer that they had an unfavourable view of the US. Divided about everything else, Turks agree on their dislike of the US, which will again make it more difficult for the US to act against Iran.
President Putin is to visit Istanbul on Monday to speak to President Erdogan about Jerusalem and Syria, a sign that it may be difficult to isolate the issue of the Israeli capital from other conflicts.
All these important developments are happening, though nothing has really changed on the ground: Israel already treated Jerusalem as its capital, and the so-called peace process with the Palestinians has been a sham for years. The US can no longer pretend to be an even-handed mediator, but then it never was one in the first place.
By recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump and Israel may have broken a political rule which says it is dangerous to mess with de facto situations others have informally come to accept. Doing so can have unexpectedly disastrous consequences. A good example of this happened less than three months ago when President Masoud Barzani held a referendum demanding Iraqi Kurdish formal independence, though the Iraqi Kurds had enjoyed de facto near independence since 2003. The Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian governments, who had accepted the previous situation for years, reacted furiously and within three weeks the Kurds lost control of Kirkuk and much of their territory. It may be that President Trump and Israel will likewise find that they risked more than they imagined and will pay a heavier price than expected for formalising Israeli rule in Jerusalem.