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Trump, Jerusalem and International Law

It is not easy to write anything new about President Trump’s 6 December 2017 announcement that he – and  supposedly the U.S. as a nation – was recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. After all, plenty of very smart and attentive people have already commented on this decision. I particularly like those who pointed out that Trump’s move replicated that of Arthur Balfour. As Balfour had assumed in 1917 that he could promise Palestine to the Zionists, so Trump seems to have assumed he could legitimize Jerusalem as Israeli territory. The connection seems to support the philosopher George Santayana’s observation that those who know no history are bound to repeat it.

As was the case with Balfour, neither Trump nor the U.S. Congress (whose edict the president has so eagerly carried out) has any legal authority to proceed in this fashion. In the case of Trump and the Congress, what should get in their way is international law – which, when represented in signed treaties, is incorporated into U.S. law. The Geneva Conventions are such a case. Part of these conventions (again, now made U.S. law) makes it illegal to conquer territory and then absorb it by moving your own citizens in while ethnically cleansing the original population. One can also cite the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court declaring apartheid policies a crime against humanity. This is not U.S. law but reflects international consensus. Israel is in violation of aspects of the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute, as well as a host of United Nations resolutions.

Trump, along with the Republicans and Democrats in Congress, seems to be ignorant, or perhaps just callously unconcerned about international law – even when it has become their law! Nowhere is it referenced in Trump’s announcement. It is doubtful that he and those in Congress give it any thought at all. It is this shameless stupidity that concerns me. For, to the extent that we ignore international law, the world returns to the conditions that led to World Wars I and II, and of course, to the Holocaust.

“Open Eyes and Fresh Thinking”

Trump: “When I came into office I promised to look at the world’s challenges with open eyes and very fresh thinking.”

Comment: This state of mind cannot be completely achieved because we all are shaped by culture and personal past experiences. However, it can be approximated if one is (a) conscious of one’s biases and assumptions and (b) knows enough relevant history to recognize what is indeed relatively “fresh” and original. I think it is safe to say that President Trump is nowhere near this level of consciousness. Rather than clear-headed and original, he behaves erratically and is very much in the grips of cultural prejudices and personal biases.

President Trump, though a particularly outrageous example of this impaired condition, is not the only American leader to mistake his own ignorance for clear-sightedness (George W. Bush comes to mind). It is perhaps because it is so difficult to really see the world’s problems “with open eyes and fresh thinking” that wiser men and women than Mr. Trump have laid down international laws designed to prevent nation-states from taking actions that have, beyond doubt, proven to be disastrous.

“Alternative Facts”

Trump: The announcement on Jerusalem “marks the beginning of a new approach to conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.” Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocating the U.S. embassy there will “advance the cause of peace.” We know this to be so because putting off this step for the past 20 years has not advanced that cause.

Comment: Trump’s reasoning here is, well, unreasonable, and historically mistaken. Previous presidents did not delay moving the U.S. embassy because they thought not doing so would help bring about Palestinian-Israeli peace. First, they promised to make this move for domestic political reasons during election campaigns – a nod to the Zionist lobby’s funding potential. Afterward, they held back because to actually take this step would only make things in the Middle East worse, and not only for the Palestinians and the Israelis. The United States has other Muslim rulers in the region who are its “allies.” Trump’s predecessors, or at least their advisors, knew that the men who ruled Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the like had populations with significant numbers of people who would be quite agitated over just the move Trump has now undertaken. Thes U.S. leaders feared, not without reason, that ceding Jerusalem to the Israelis would destabilize those allies and boost the threat of terrorism.

No doubt aided by an abiding ignorance, President Trump has replaced the facts which held back the hand of his predecessors with “alternative facts.” For instance, he has replaced the facts that make up the history of Jerusalem as related to both Islam and Christianity, and the millennia-old emotions that go along with it, with the reality of an illegal fifty-year occupation of the entire city by Israel. Having rendered truth in this fashion, the president concludes that his decision must be in the interest of both the U.S. and peace because it is “nothing more or less than the recognition of reality.”

How simple is President Trump’s world! Simple as only the ignorant can see it. No wonder Secretary of State Tillerson (who is not without his own short-sightedness) called President Trump a “moron.”

Don’t Misunderstand Me

Much of the rest of the president’s speech was an attempt to assure the world that what he had just declared was not as “fresh” and new as he at first claimed.

Trump: “I want to make one point very clear …. The United States remains deeply committed to helping to facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides.” We are “not taking a position on any final status issues.”

Comment: It is at this point that you have to ask just what world the president is living in. Actually, the answer is not that hard to come by. It is a personal world that is singularly egocentric. As such it has no real relevance to U.S. national interests and certainly not to Palestinian-Israeli conflict resolution. Its only reference point is Trump’s own, largely unrestrained, self-serving urges and needs.

According to reports coming from inside the White House, Trump was interested in the alleged prestige of being the president who actually went through with the promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. “While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today I am delivering.”

He sought out those who would encourage his goal – those who are hardly any more knowledgable then he – his Christian Fundamentalist Vice President Mike Pence, and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is a family friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump is also reported to have been encouraged to take this step by the Senate minority leader Charles Shumer, a man whose only foreign policy interest is in supporting Israel. Trump ignored the advice of his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, both of whom thought the move ill-advised. So now we have the Zionists and Christian fundamentalists standing behind Trump, patting him on the back. The rest of the world stands in front of him, aghast. Typical of the self-serving type he is, Trump only cares about the blandishments pushing him in the direction he wants to go.

That direction is decidedly backwards. Back in the direction of no rules, no international law, not even any binding treaties to bother with. Just free rein for the whims of the leader.

Power and the Will

One gets the sense that Trump feels he can simply create a new reality by the exercise of his will. I want to emphasize the word “feels” here because I do not think the president reasons out these actions. He experiences a feeling that suggests to him a way he can change things. He does not weigh this feeling against history or contemporary reality. For example, take his description of the eventual new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem as “a magnificent tribute to peace.”

This equating of what one feels or wills with what will actually be is a sign of a delusional personality – someone who can’t tell the difference between his own opinion and hard facts. To have such a person in a position of power is dangerous indeed. We know this from experience. The only things that may keep such impulsive people in check are rules – rules that are at once humane and based on historical lessons learned, and rules that are enforced.

Such rules exist. They were introduced in the form of a growing body of international law as nations confronted the consequences of modern warfare and brutality. Unfortunately, today these rules are rarely enforced – and never done so when it comes to superpowers and their close allies.

So Donald Trump, with his alleged “open eyes” and “fresh thinking,” pays no attention to the rules. Announcing his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he leads us all backwards toward disaster.

 

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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