NEW YORK – U.S. President Donald Trump likes to call his proposed tax cut “a Christmas present” to the American people. This week, by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he has presented the Jewish state with what appears to be a Hanukkah gift.
Appearances can be deceiving. There is more than generosity, or fidelity to a campaign promise, behind this move. Trump’s many critics don’t give him much credit for strategic thinking, but I think that’s what we are seeing right now.
In and of itself, Trump’s declaration gives nothing away. Jerusalem has been the de facto capital of Israel for 70 years. East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim, was annexed by Israel in summer 1967. The world didn’t recognize that annexation, but Israelis now take it for granted. Jerusalem is the seat of the Knesset, the Supreme Court and the prime minister’s residence. East Jerusalem is home to more than 200,000 Israelis. No Israeli government could bargain it away and stay in power. It is a fait accompli.
Trump knows this. If a deal depends on an Israeli withdrawal from Jerusalem, then there will be no deal — just endless “peace processing” interrupted by sporadic outbreaks of Palestinian violence that Israel can contain.
Trump likes winners, and the Palestinians aren’t winning. The American decision to recognize Israel’s capital is proof of that. It is not a “stab in the back” as Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian Liberation Organization spokesman in Washington, put it. Palestinian wounds are self-inflicted and getting worse. The Palestinian Authority leaders haven’t figured out that they are yesterday’s problem.
There was a time when the Palestinian cause galvanized real emotion in the Muslim Middle East. But this is now a different region and a different world. The Arab League, which once wielded an oil weapon, is now a gathering of empty djellabas. Muslim nations outside the region, riven by sectarian dissent and political rivalries, are not going to lift more than an accusing finger. Pope Francis is praying for a return to the status quo, which is fine. Old Europe is disconcerted by the change in American policy, but will come around. Turks are threatening to break relations with Israel, but we’ve seen this movie before, most recently in 2010-2016.
In the U.S., the anti-Trump foreign policy establishment is scandalized. John Brennan, the head of the CIA during the Barack Obama administration, has called the president out for “a foreign policy blunder of historic proportion” that will “damage U.S. interests in the Middle East for years to come and make the region more volatile.” This, not coincidentally, was almost the verbatim assessment of the CIA and State Department in 1948 when they warned President Harry Truman against recognizing a Jewish state. Fortunately, Truman didn’t listen.
In any case, it is hard to imagine the Middle East in a more volatile state than U.S. President Barack Obama, Brennan and Secretary of State John Kerry left it. In eight years, the U.S. managed the overthrow of its ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, welcomed his short-lived Muslim Brotherhood successor, and then alienated Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the current (pro-American) strongman in Cairo. The administration created enduring chaos in Libya with its highly original tactic of leading a military campaign from behind. In Iraq, Obama withdrew troops and watched American military victory turn into defeat and disorder. The U.S. sat on its red lines while Syria disintegrated. Obama himself publicly underestimated the potency of the Islamic State (the “JV team”). The list goes on.
The worst mistake of the Obama years, by far, and the one behind Trump’s regional diplomacy, was the Kerry-engineered attempt to appease and court Iran. The nuclear deal was bad enough, but in its wake, Iranian power spread through the Middle East like a pox. Shiite fundamentalism on their borders and the prospect of nuclearized ayatollahs just over the horizon terrified the Sunni regimes of the Gulf, Egypt and Jordan.
Notably, these countries, once the patrons of the Palestinians, have been remarkably mild (at least by local standards) in their denunciations of the Jerusalem sovereignty announcement. It is unlikely that they were shocked, and it is less even less likely that they will turn away from America as a result of what would, not so long ago, have been considered an unthinkable decision. Fear has made them into realists.
Trump has made it clear that he shares the Sunni fear of Iranian expansion. He began making the case on his trip to Saudi Arabia last spring, the first stop on his maiden presidential voyage. Jerusalem was the second.
The Sunni Arab nations lack the military power to deal with Tehran. It is highly unlikely that Trump, whose bark is worse than his bite, plans to deploy American troops to overthrow the ayatollahs. Even if he has such an idea, his present standing with the American public makes it impracticable.
The only way to roll back Iranian aggression is piece by piece, starting in Syria. And the only military power that can help is Israel. Iran is a common enemy, after all. Cooperation is only natural.
The shape of this cooperation is already visible in the night sky over Damascus, where Israeli missiles and airstrikes are disassembling Iranian military installations as fast as they are built. It is also discernible in the recent large-scale Israeli Defense Forces maneuvers aimed at prepping for a land war against Iran’s Lebanese puppet, Hezbollah.
This is risky business, even with American backing. Iran is arming Hamas with an eye to a coordinated missile attack on Israeli cities from Gaza and Lebanon. Israel can protect itself, but it would be costly, and there is always the risk of escalation.
And so, Israel’s full participation in the Trump-Sunni project comes at a price. Netanyahu has a vision of how to solve the Palestinian issue. It includes a unified Jerusalem legally belonging to Israel, as well as continued West Bank settlement and, if there ever is a deal, a demilitarized Palestinian entity. The alternative — no deal — is OK with him, too.
Seen this way, Trump’s move today is not a Hanukkah present at all. It is a down payment. How long will it take to build that embassy? Three years? Four? No rush. Time is on Israel’s side.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.