By Halimah Elmariah
On December 6, President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a contentious decision because of Palestinians’ claim of East Jerusalem as a capital for a potential Palestinian state. President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is strategic and calculated, although not justified and certainly doesn’t accelerate the likelihood of a Palestinian state.
In some ways, Arab leaders, particularly those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, created the conditions that enabled Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Egypt’s regional influence, long considered a force for stability, has steadily withered in the face of internal economic and political crises that have eroded its institutions.
While Egypt has enjoyed a stronger relationship with the Trump administration than it did with the Obama administration, the Trump administration recently withheld $300 million in foreign aid to Egypt over allegations that the Arab state purchased weapons from North Korea. Given this thorny episode that threatens Egypt’s foreign aid, and the police state’s internal problems, it’s unlikely that Egyptian leaders would have taken a hard-line position on Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Not to mention that President Sisi has displayed an affinity for President Trump on a number of occasions, not unlike the affinity expressed by the Saudi Arabian rulers.
The custodians of the two holiest Islamic sites engaged in a series of events that arguably paved the road for the American embassy’s move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
First, the Al Saud family warmly welcomed President Trump to their kingdom on his first foreign visit as president, and bestowed him with over 80 luxurious gifts, despite President Trump’s blatant anti-Muslim rhetoric. Since Trump’s ostentatious visit, crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, and President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner have developed a close relationship around their shared antipathy of Iran.
Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution wrote in The Atlantic that Saudi Arabia “finds itself in close embrace with the most anti-Muslim administration in US history and stands as one of the few countries genuinely enthusiastic about Trump’s foreign policy agenda.”
In June, Saudi Arabia and three of its biggest allies cut diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar for a number of reasons, including alleged cooperation with Iran. This imprudent move not only threatened the survival of the Council (GCC), but also demonstrated regional fragmentation and arguably weakened Qatar’s political clout by isolating the wealthy state. Saudi Arabian rulers further stoked regional sectarianism by encouraging the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri to resign, which could have stirred an internal Lebanese dispute with Hezbollah.
Two weeks after the episode with the Lebanese Prime Minister, who eventually returned to his post, the New York Times reported that presented a plan to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that “tilted toward the Israelis more than any [plan] ever embraced by the American government.” American and Saudi officials denied this, but Palestinian, and European officials confirm Abbas’s version of the conversation. Although the conversation between Abbas and MBS is contested, one thing is certain — Mohammed bin Salman did not substantively lobby Kushner against relocating the American embassy or recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, especially during his alleged clandestine visit to Tel Aviv.
Unlike the reticent denouncements made in Cairo and Riyadh about Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, officials in Ankara made more vehement condemnations. In the strongest public display of opposition to Trump’s announcement, Turkish President Erdogan called the move a “red line” for Muslims. Erdogan’s public remarks clearly serve to appease his constituents, but do not reflect Turkey’s actual policy towards Israel, when in May Turkish business leaders encouraged increased trade cooperation between the two states. Given Turkey’s economic relations with Israel, it’s difficult to measure how much of Erdogan’s vociferous denunciation is substantial or just rhetoric.
On the lower end of the influence scale, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are preoccupied with internal disputes to meaningfully resist or lobby against Trump’s decision. articulated that no one “should fall under the illusion that declaring Jerusalem Israel’s capital will harm America’s alliances with most, or even many, Arab nations (Jordan being a notable exception).”
In essence, as American officials prepare to build a new embassy in Jerusalem, influential Arab leaders have created the blueprint on which the contested embassy will be designed.