Trump jolts the Middle East
United States' President, Donald Trump, finally came out in his true colours by declaring on Wednesday that the US Government is giving official recognition to the holy city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and accordingly, the embassy will be shifted there from Tel Aviv. This decision of Trump virtually negates the tortuous efforts of his predecessor Barack Obama and even the Republican President George Bush in facilitating the process of dialogue, in the last two decades, to reach a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the future status of Jerusalem.
As reports are pouring in on the impact of this unilateral decision of the US President, without consulting his NATO allies or the United Nations, it is clear that Trump is bent on moving alone and he wants the world to be shaped the way he wants. The UN Secretary General has strongly opposed Trump's decision as it violates the UN resolution on the status of Jerusalem. Similarly, other western countries, Germany, United Kingdom, and France have taken strong objection to the way the US President has been trying to impose his own pro-Israel approach to deal with the Jerusalem issue. Germany said that the state of Jerusalem cannot be prejudged and France said that the move contradicted international law and ignored UN Security Council resolutions. UK Prime Minister Theresa May said that she would talk to Trump and inform him of Britain's opposition to this decision of the White House. Even the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Defence Secretary J Mattis felt uncomfortable in justifying the US decision at their respective meetings with the foreign representatives. It was Trump's decision and he imposed it upon the Republican Party and the Government.
The Muslim nations including the US allies Saudi Arabia and Jordan have reacted strongly. The Arab League is meeting on December 9, Saturday. Though the US officials indicated that the US President stands for the continuation of the peace process and his son-in-law Jared Kushner is deeply involved in the process, Palestinian leaders have made it clear that the Jerusalem announcement by the US President gives the signal that Washington can play no role as a peacemaker because Trump has already taken sides. The Israeli Government is naturally happy and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu termed the day as historic for Israel.
West Asian observers are surprised that Trump made such a decision without caring for its immediate and long-term implications on the relations of the US with the Arab nations. The Trump administration with its pro-Israel stance had tried earlier to shut down the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) office in Washington but had to retreat from the move after the PLO threatened to withdraw from the peace process negotiations. It is known that the status of the holy city of Jerusalem is core to the Middle East's longest-pending dispute held sacred by the Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Jerusalem has an emotional and religious appeal to all the three and the status cannot be dictated in such a cavalier manner.
The traditional US policy till Trump took over has been that the resolution on Jerusalem was a part of the negotiations between the stakeholders of the dispute. The dispute is still on, but on Tuesday, a day before the Trump announcement, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would cut funding for Palestine if the government continued to feed money to the militants and their families. The hardcore Republicans have been campaigning for this shifting for long but this was put into action only by Trump just 13 months after his election victory. The Democrats believe that this sudden move was meant to strengthen his base among the evangelical Christians. Trump has instructed Vice President Pence to travel to the region to work for the peace process. It will be interesting to see how the US allies, like Saudi Arabia, move finally on the Palestine issue, as in the recent days, Saudi Arabia and the Israelis are moving closer to deal with what they believe is an emerging, big threat from Iran.
In sum, the narrative in the peace negotiations in the Middle East has drastically changed and it will be a new scenario which the stakeholders as also the United Nations will have to deal with. When the US-North Korean relations are just receding a bit from the path of confrontation due to the joint efforts of the UN and China-Russia, a new front has been opened by Trump all of a sudden. The geopolitical focus in the next few weeks will be centred on the impact of Trump's announcement.
With regard to India, the Modi government has taken a cautious and ambivalent position on lines with the pro-Israeli focus of the Prime Minister. The external affairs ministry has not condemned the Trump statement in the manner of Germany or UK, the statement only says that India's position is shaped by its views and interests and not determined by any third country. No mention of the US or Trump has been given in the initial reaction. President Trump's statement came a week after India expressed support for an "independent and viable Palestine" and participated in the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestine people.
The PM during his visit to Israel in July this year was the signatory to a statement that made no reference to the UN resolution on Palestine, not one mention of the two-state solution or even to the importance of the talks. The initial Indian reaction gives all the indications that the Modi Government will be reluctant to speak against the Trump administration on this issue. That contains the seed to isolate India, not only from the Muslim nations but also from China and Russia.
(The author is Editor-in-chief of IPA. The views expressed are strictly personal.)