Trump has a chance at Middle East deal making – or deal breaking

The West Bank could burn.

January 28, 2017 21:25
3 minute read.
US PRESIDENT-ELECT Donald Trump gestures to people in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York after spe

US PRESIDENT-ELECT Donald Trump gestures to people in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York after speaking to the news media last week.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Many Israelis are joyful at the prospect that President Donald Trump will move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For most Jews, Jerusalem is Israel’s eternal capital and for many the move would be a dream come true.

But it also could be a nightmare.

On October 23, 1995, Congress passed a law mandating that the American embassy must be moved to Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999 – barring a temporary presidential override – and allocating the funds necessary to carry out the move as part of that decision.

But every six months for the past 17 years, three US presidents – two Democrats and one Republican – have signed waivers on the grounds of national security delaying the move. All Trump need do to move the embassy is not sign that waiver this May.

The State Department rightly is concerned that such a move would spark riots in the Muslim world, similar to the burning of the US consulate in Benghazi, and that could spread to US embassies in Muslim capitals. Riots in Jordan might undermine King Abdullah’s regime.

The West Bank could burn.

Moving the embassy is akin to an invitation for another intifada.

President Bill Clinton was the first to sign the waiver, followed by president George W. Bush. Both had promised during their election campaigns to move the embassy. But once in the Oval Office, they realized the difference between campaign promises and the responsibility of being the president.

Barack Obama continued the practice of signing a waiver every six months, most recently in December.

The unfulfilled law states that an undivided Jerusalem, while preserving the rights of every religion and race, will be recognized as the capital of Israel.

Any US administration (not Congress) has a constitutional prerogative to determine foreign policy, and in this case the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations believed the future of Jerusalem should be resolved in negotiations between the parties.

At this stage, Trump has limited knowledge of the security and political significance of such a move. But once he realizes the full implications of it, he will be angered. Beware, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Sunni Arabs states, led by Saudi Arabia, work behind the scenes to strengthen their relationships with Israel. Common enemies – Iran and Islamic State – already nearly have turned Israel and Saudi Arabia into allies.

Israel has never attacked Saudi Arabia and the Saudis know that Israel has much to contribute in the way of military and technological capabilities.

With Saudi Arabia in the middle of a plan to soon end its economic dependence on oil, and to invest instead in technology and defense industries, Israel could contribute much. But don’t expect that relationship to continue if the US embassy will be moved to Jerusalem.

For Israel, there’s a choice: take the historic chance to change its strategic situation in the Middle East, its security and economy. Or give it up in favor of a declarative historical step regarding Jerusalem with no tangible payoff.

For Trump, there’s a chance to be a deal maker. Or a deal breaker.

In exchange for a delay in moving the embassy, he can pressure the Saudis and others in the Arab world to make public and deepen their relations with Israel.

Or he can move the embassy prematurely, satisfying only the Jewish right wing in the US and Israel, and then watch as the region ignites in flames and with it any near-term hope of open Israeli relations with the Sunni Arab world.

The author is a veteran Israeli journalist living for over 20 years in Washington, DC.

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