Last Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennet have praised Trump’s decision and many Israelis (including myself) shared the emotional fervor. At the same time, international leaders, including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and EU chief diplomat Federica Mogherini have condemned the move. Leaders of the Islamic world have unsurprisingly been more critical, chief among them Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who on Thursday called for a “new intifada” against Israel.
As an Israeli-American studying in Israel, I feel I must criticize President Trump for this egregiously irresponsible move.
First, this was a clear stunt by Trump to galvanize support from his base. Tax reform is going well for him and, in order to capitalize on the winning streak, why not throw Jerusalem in there too?
I understand that politicians need to engage in such symbolic actions at times to retain support. However, there is a moral hazard here: Israel, not the U.S., will disproportionately suffer any negative consequences of Trump’s declaration. Hence, I find it morally disturbing that my president is willing to possibly risk harming a strong ally in order to satisfy his political needs.
Second, if Trump claims this was a rational decision, then there is something off about his cost-benefit calculations. The main potential strategic benefit of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is that it slightly bolsters U.S.-Israel relations. Arguments that it will, in the long-term, lead to a breakthrough in the peace process are purely hypothetical. The main strategic cost of the declaration is a deterioration of U.S.-Arab relations and accompanying blow to any prospect of peace with a concrete possibility of violent outbursts within Israel that may affect American citizens as well as Israelis. I fail to see how a slight boost in an already robust relationship justifies dealing a blow to peace.
Third, this declaration proves that despite almost a year in office, Trump still does not even begin to grasp the situation in the Middle East. After three years in Israel, I have learned that Arab culture holds honor and land in the highest esteem. Trump is not only politically sidelining the Arabs through his declaration, but also insulting their honor (not to mention their religious sensibilities). How this could lead to positive change in the region, let alone peace, is beyond me. Although I am skeptical about saying what is “presidential,” I would not object to the proposition that such behavior from America’s chief diplomat is un-presidential.
Fourth, as an American citizen living in Israel, I find frightening Trump’s willingness to play with fire so close to where I, many of my friends, and most of my family live. I suspect that Trump finds an outburst unlikely, but I wonder if he would act similarly if he were risking the same on American soil.
Finally, I want to address my fellow Israelis. I am certainly pleased to accept recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as we all are. It is, without a doubt, moving for all of us. But what did we gain? Jerusalem – whether the world recognizes it or not – is, for all intents and purposes, the capital of Israel. Is recognition really so important, especially considering that it could come at the price of violence?
To President Trump, let me be clear, you have done us – both Israeli-Americans and Israelis – no tangible good through this declaration. On the contrary, you have only insulted our neighbors and possibly put us in danger. My fellow Israelis, yes, it is great that someone finally recognized what was obvious anyway, but is it really worth the potential cost? The Trump declaration is morally dubious, not worth it strategically, insensitive to regional realities, hurts prospects for peace, and serves only to support Trump’s own political needs.
Thus, taken as a whole, Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is virtually worthless to everyone but Trump himself and its negative implications for peace already make it far from harmless to those who stand to suffer from it.