Well, he told us he’d do it. As a candidate, President Donald Trump promised to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; and he delivered. Prospects for peace and U.S. national security interests be damned.
As Americans, we should be very concerned about the implications. Not only in terms of U.S. foreign policy interests in the Middle East, but also for our national security interests worldwide.
Here’s why: As the global fallout over Trump’s unilateral decision continues to spread, it is increasingly obvious that the Trump administration failed to anticipate the full scope of negative global reaction and has been caught flat-footed in response.
Protests have erupted around the world, with scores injured and numerous fatalities. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejected any U.S. role in peace talks going forward, calling instead on the United Nations to fill the U.S. leadership void.
The 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) organized an emergency heads of state meeting in Istanbul last week, where it issued a statement recognizing “East Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine and invite[d] all countries to recognize the State of Palestine and East Jerusalem as its occupied capital.”
European allies gave America the cold shoulder, rejecting and sharply criticizing the move. Even Christian minorities in Egypt rejected a meeting request by Vice President Mike Pence, a very embarrassing rebuke for someone who has campaigned on protecting Christians abroad.
Palestinian Christians are also organizing boycotts of Pence, who had pushed hard for the Jerusalem recognition, and they may not even receive him in Christian holy sites in Jerusalem or Bethlehem.
However, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis and their career staff recommended against the move, citing diminished prospects for peace and potential security threats.
On an issue as sensitive as Jerusalem—where emotional attachment to the city is felt by billions of people around the world and international law intersects with diverse political, economic and security interests—we cannot help but think that President Trump did not fully appreciate the sensitivities and risks involved in undertaking a disruptive unilateral move with nothing to show for it in return.
Part of that may have to do with Trump’s personal limitations, and part may be the result of the degradation of the State Department itself.
First, Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian negotiations team was led by individuals who, while being extremely intelligent, had no prior foreign policy experience.
Further, by housing them at the White House instead of the State Department, where one of us worked as U.S. deputy special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, they have not developed the knowledge or the relationships that would have enabled them to understand the deep flaws and of their Jerusalem decision.
Further, several key senior State Department roles that could have advised as to likely global reactions to the decision seem to have been deliberately left vacant. One such position is the U.S. special envoy to the OIC, which the other one of us held.
An active OIC envoy would have easily advised the administration as to the likely explosive OIC response, allowing the president and his advisors to factor in the risks of those reactions into the decision calculus.
Instead of having a discussion of the full scope of possible negative reactions, all indications are that the president focused narrowly on his political agenda instead of safeguarding U.S. national security interests.
In his announcement, President Trump boasted: “While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering.”
Trump is correct: Both President Clinton and President George W. Bush did promise to move the U.S. embassy during their campaigns, but when they got into office, they quickly learned that the consequences would be harmful to both U.S. national security interests and harmful to Israel itself.
The global reactions to Trump’s Jerusalem announcement clearly took his administration by surprise. Vice President Pence’s trip was timed with Christmas to include a stop in Bethlehem to have a theme of embracing Christian minorities in the Middle East. Now, those minorities are refusing to meet with him.
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, a few days later, amazingly said, “I strongly believe this is going to move the ball forward for the peace process,” and that Trump “just took Jerusalem off the table,” displaying the administration’s utter lack of comprehension of the situation in the Middle East in general and with the Palestinians and Israelis in specific.
President Trump and his top leadership either didn’t understand, didn’t bother to listen or weren’t able to learn. Worse, it may have been all three. Any of the three, though, is very dangerous for the United States, which continues to face a perilous world where China advances economically, ISIS continues to threaten worldwide, and North Korea continues to develop its nuclear and missile programs.
Let’s hope President Trump and his advisors learn from this mistake and, moving forward, start to both listen to the deep expertise that exists within our career ranks and heed their advice. If not, we could be in for a very rough ride in the years ahead.