Issue Briefs

Trump Decision to Transfer US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem Risks Setting Off New Era of Dangerous Instability

Trump Decision to Transfer US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem Risks Setting Off New Era of Dangerous Instability

Martin Sieff

January 5, 2018

President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was a rash and unfortunate move that threatens to unleash a new era of destabilization across the Middle East.

Unwanted consequences

The record of history is clear: Even supposedly purely rhetorical or narrowly legal changes in the status of the city of Jerusalem or to the holy places of Islam, Christianity and Judaism within its confines can unleash unpredictable and enormous passions around the world.

Far from cementing Israel’s hold on Jerusalem, as it was presumably intended to do, Trump’s move has already provoked a global diplomatic backlash and a new tsunami of demands to make East Jerusalem the capital of the Palestinian state at once.

On December 21, 128 members of the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution that rejected Trump’s acknowledgement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Only nine states, including Guatemala and Honduras, voted against the resolution, and 35 others chose to abstain

Istanbul Summit

The emergency summit of the 57-nation Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that convened in Istanbul on December 13 was an even greater act of massive diplomatic and strategic significance for the whole world.

The conference called unanimously for East Jerusalem to be made the capital of the Palestinian state.

The location of the conference itself was fraught with significance. For the first time in a century, Turkey reentered the politics of the Holy Land and of the states of Israel and Palestine and became directly involved in the forefront of the diplomatic process to decide the future status of Jerusalem.

Turkey has been a powerful, indeed vital member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for more than 60 years; and in the US-led coalition’s struggles against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) its strategic importance has been greater than ever. The United States is believed to still maintain nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base in southeastern Turkey.

 Turkey’s new role

However, the Istanbul summit now confirms that Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has carved out a much more powerful and independent role for itself outside the US sphere of policymaking in the region. Consequently, Ankara’s importance will grow rapidly and to a degree unanticipated by Western policymakers on this and other regional issues in the months ahead.

Key Arab allies against the US

Second, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – the United States’ three strongest and most reliable allies in the heart of the Arab world – all publicly supported the move, openly defying the US government.

Therefore, far from increasing US influence in the region, or at least flaunting it proudly, within a week of it being announced Trump’s statement on Jerusalem has provoked precisely the opposite effect to anything that he or the Israeli government could possibly have desired.

Why then was it made? The most immediate reason was that Trump once again defied the long-established foreign policy consensus among veteran US regional analysts, policymakers, intelligence experts and Foreign Service Officers (FSO).

Prudent American policies discarded

The US Congress passed legislation by a large margin legislation back in 1995 insisting that the State Department relocate the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. However, every one of the three presidents before Donald Trump – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – did not hesitate to use the loopholes carefully inserted into the legislation to continually defer putting it into practice.

Absolutely no US – or, for that matter, Israeli – national interest was served by moving the American embassy. The consensus on this was almost universally recognized by foreign policy professionals and officials in both countries.

Far from being enacted to serve any national interest therefore, the immediate reason for Trump’s decision – and for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support of it – appears to have been to shore up the challenged and uncertain current political positions of both leaders.

Domestic political pressures

In the United States, Trump continues to face continued efforts to delegitimize him a year after his shock victory in the 2016 presidential election. The investigation into his alleged collusion with Russia before the 2016 election by Special Counsel Robert Mueller had turned up no hard evidence whatsoever. But it continues to trundle forward slowly but steadily.

Now Trump is facing a new wave of accusations alleging that he sexually harassed women during his career before running for president. Despite a still-booming economy, his approval ratings remain mired at historic lows for the end of any neophyte president’s first year in office.

Nevertheless, Trump has shown a remarkable consistency during his year in power in trying to push through the legislation and changes that he promised his core constituencies during the 2016 campaign.

The move of the embassy to Jerusalem fits this pattern. It was vociferously demanded by the Evangelical Christian religious constituency within the United States who strongly supported Trump in the 2016 election. They believe in an interpretation of prophecies in the Bible believing that it is due to be fulfilled, culminating in the return of Jesus as conquering Messiah in the near future.

Pleasing the Evangelical political base

These views are not held by any of the normative Orthodox, Catholic, Episcopalian and other venerable Protestant confessions of the Christian faith. However, between 25 million to 60 million people within the United States, almost all of them in the Trump-supporting rural heartlands of the country are estimated to share them. Trump therefore was literally keeping faith with this core constituency.

Ironically, although these Evangelicals repeatedly claim to “love” Israel and the Jewish people, their belief system and imagined agenda for prophetic fulfillment envision an enormous world war in which numerous millions of Muslims and Jews alike would be slaughtered.

This hardly expresses “love” for either anyone of either the Muslim or Jewish faiths. Nor does it appear to be an attractive or plausible road map for any kind of peace process for the Israelis, the Palestinians or anyone else in the region.

Cautious Israeli Government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has routinely called for the embassy to be moved throughout his career and has won endless and politically useful rounds of applause from his supporters both in Israel and the United States for doing so. Yet until now he has sensibly never seriously tried to persuade, let alone pressure, any US president or secretary of state into approving and ordering such a move.

All Israeli governments have known that any threat of changing the legal or diplomatic status of Jerusalem carries the risk of setting off a new wave of inflammatory violence in the city that could almost instantaneously spread across Israel and Palestine and throughout the region.

It may indeed be that Netanyahu now feels so confident of the support of Trump and his hardline inner circle that he believes this will be enough to enable him to ride out the inevitable wave of protests and violence. However, that would be a reckless, indeed dangerous assumption for him to make.

Netanyahu has problems at home

Netanyahu, like Trump is a charismatic yet divisive leader who enjoys passionate support on one side of the political spectrum. But like Trump he is now facing potentially politically devastating probes into alleged corruption and/or inappropriate personal behavior. A major Israeli police investigation into alleged corruption by the prime minister and his wife has been continuing for many months.

Also, within his own nationalist coalition, Netanyahu faces a new generation of ambitious and much younger rivals, most especially Education and Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, a former high tech entrepreneur. Sharing in the “credit” for the decision to relocate the US embassy at last can be expected to boost his support strongly, at least in the very short term within his own nationalist political community in Israel.

However, Netanyahu, like Trump needs to recognize that the dangers of a change of status for Jerusalem setting off unexpectedly global and serious consequences is not a new phenomenon for the 21st century. Nor is it limited to disputes involving Muslims and Jews.

Old conflicts about the Holy Land

As long ago as 1852-53, a conflict between the three most powerful military empires in the world at the time – Britain, France and Russia over the status of Christian holy places within the Ottoman Empire set off the Crimean War. In popular Western culture, that obscure campaign is remembered –if at all – only for the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade of the British Army, celebrated in a popular poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

However, the war cost almost a million lives, more than 90 percent of them Russians and it led directly the first great wave of technological modernization across Russia proclaimed by Tsar Alexander II, including the freeing from slavery of Russia’s serfs.

British rule

After World War I, the British Empire displaced the Ottomans as rulers of Jerusalem after a 400-year-era. The British only ruled for 30 years there and in what they regarded as the Holy Land under a Mandate from the League of Nations approved at the San Remo conference in April 1920.

But the British never established any lasting period of peace and security. Every few years sectarian riots, terrorism or full-scale rebellions erupted among either or both the Muslim Arab and Jewish communities.

Old fights

The 1929 riots in Jerusalem were particularly instructive about the dangers inherent in the current dispute. They began over a dispute at the Western Wall, the holiest place of worship to Jews which is right below the Dome of the Rock, one of the major centers of devotion of the Islamic faith.

During a week of riots in August 1929, 133 Jews were killed by Arabs and 339 others were injured, while 110 Arabs were killed and 232 were injured, most by the British police.

The riots proved to be a diplomatic and historic watershed because support for the Palestinian Arabs was loudly expressed in protests and intense political and diplomatic activity across the entire Muslim world.

Jerusalem became an international issue

From that moment on, for the remaining 18 years of the Mandate era, the British were forced to factor in the concerns of all Muslim nations, especially the major Middle East countries of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, on conditions in Jerusalem and on the future of the land that was then known as Palestine.

Trump’s move caused major international reactions

It is already clear that Trump’s decision to announce the transfer of the US embassy has triggered off a new wave of potentially violent activism, protest and destabilization in the region. Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement which controls Gaza, has already called for a third Palestinian Intifada even though the Palestinian people, even more than Israel suffered terribly from the last one from September 2000 to February 2005.

No political benefit

In conclusion, it must be re-emphasized that Trump’s decision to relocate the US embassy in Israel poses a great immediate danger of setting off another widespread wave of violence and it already is having a very serious – and negative – impact on US standing, credibility and influence in the region.

Yet it does not advance a single real US or Israeli national interest in the slightest. Any imagined short term domestic political benefits to either Trump or Netanyahu will be of very short duration.


SieffMartin Sieff is a Global Policy Institute Fellow. He is a national columnist for the Post-Examiner online newspapers in Los Angeles and Baltimore. He has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting. Mr. Sieff served as Managing Editor, International Affairs, Chief news Analyst, Defense Industry Editor, and Chief Political Correspondent at United Press International (UPI) from 1999 to 2009. He was Chief Foreign Correspondent for The Washington Times as its Soviet and East European correspondent covering the collapse of communism from 1986 to 1992, and then its State Department correspondent from 1992 to 1999. He is the former Chief Global Analyst at The Globalist. and former senior correspondent for the Asia Pacific Defense Forum.  He is a regular contributor to The Arab Weekly in Doha and to the China Daily. 

He is the author of many books including: The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East (2008); Shifting Superpowers: The New and Emerging Relationship between the United States, China and India (2010); That Should Still Be US: How Thomas Friedman’s Flat World Myths are Keeping Us on Our Knees (2012). Mr. Sieff received his BA and MA in Modern History from Oxford University, and did his graduate studies on the Middle East at the London School of Economics.


The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of GPI.