By Jinal Tailor
In December, the world saw a seismic announcement from US President Donald Trump. He declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, a highly contentious statement given that Jerusalem is the focal point of three religions. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all have major sacred sites in Jerusalem, so by proclaiming Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, Trump has sent shockwaves through a volatile region.
The Middle East and Israel have always had a strained relationship and this has been exacerbated by constant bombings from both Palestine and Israel. The crux of this issue is that foreign assistance is very important for Israel’s survival in the Middle East. Western Europe and America have, therefore, been crucial allies of Israel since the end of the Second World War. Nonetheless, Trump’s strong pro-Israel stance is very different to that of previous presidents. President Obama supported Israel but not to the same extent; he refused to be drawn into the Middle East and its complex geopolitics.
Furthermore, the declaration that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital reveals Trump’s naivety in terms of world dealings. He has already had a number of missteps, most notably the tweets that have acted as matches to a tinderbox for US-North Korean relations. However, it could be argued that this foreign policy move is the most questionable action of the Trump Presidency so far as it has triggered huge consternation from the international community.
American allies, such as Great Britain, and the United Nations were quick to distance themselves from Trump and his announcement, suggesting America is quickly becoming isolated. In the previous presidencies of Bush and Obama, we saw two leaders who wanted to work with the international community in order to improve intelligence gathering and strategic action. Bush’s policies were largely designed to prevent his actions in Iraq and Afghanistan from appearing unpopular, while Obama’s actions came from the fact he genuinely wanted to aid foreign nations from tyranny and oppression.
Trump has quickly separated himself from the international community not only through the Israel announcement but also through other foreign policy promises during his first year in office, such as the Mexican wall and the ban on immigrants from certain states. Trump’s actions carry a xenophobic tone – people of different skin tones, religious beliefs and nationalities are seen as secondary to his ‘America First’ policy. America has seemingly returned to its independent internationalism stance that was first established by Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding during the 1920s. America will operate on international issues in which it has a vested interest but will focus primarily on domestic issues.
On the surface, it seems like Trump has made this foreign policy decision to reward his supporters, but when the details are considered this view seems less valid. Trump has at least three more years in office which is more than enough to placate interest groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition with a variety of policies that may not be as high-profile as his most recent announcement. Additionally, some of his pro-Israel donors like Sheldon Adelson and Bernard Marcus are market leaders in their respective industries but are not involved in the operations of the Trump administration on a day-to-day basis.
The more likely reason for moving closer to Israel is the fact that Trump needs supporters badly. His approval ratings are the lowest of any modern President, and the only President who was ever been more unpopular at this point was Herbert Hoover at the height of the Great Depression. The only leader from the modern era who has comparable unpopularity is Francois Hollande; the French leader whose popularity dwindled as the National debt and unemployment levels grew in France. Trump has not come from within the GOP; he was very much an insurgent candidate who gained political allies such as Paul Ryan who aligned with him out of the necessity of toeing the party line. Trump lacks an army of supporters in government built through a number of years on the Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue. Trump came from business and it clearly shows in how he operates with a seemingly different agenda to Congress.
The political ramifications of the Trump announcement will be interesting to track over the next few months as it could redefine America’s Middle Eastern policy. Outreach policies that had been designed by Obama to build closer links with states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia could be tossed by the wayside. Furthermore, the announcement will upset the precarious relationships between Israel and its neighbours, Palestine and Jordan. It has already led to huge protests but could conceivably lead to yet further escalation.