Trump’s Nothingburger: A Hanukkah Gift for Putin?

For the past seven-odd years, every time we drove a family member to the shiny new US Consulate-General in Jerusalem on visa or passport business, I was sure the huge edifice was actually an embassy-in-waiting. The United States was committed by act of Congress – from long before the building went up — to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, wasn’t it? As soon as the president du jour decided that renewing the six-month waiver was no longer essential for US interests or security, the signs and letter paper would be changed, a few offices would be reassigned (assuming all were already occupied), and that would be that. The building’s location seemed to have been deliberately selected for the purpose: it’s just east of the “green line,” in what was from 1949 to 1967 no-man’s land between Israeli- and Jordanian-held territory. It thus could be presented either as symbolizing the city’s unification or as perfectly situated for accreditation to both governments in a shared capital city of Israel and a future Palestinian state.

Well, all the hoohah around Donald J. Trump’s “declaration” notwithstanding, that didn’t happen overnight, as it could have — nor will it ever. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (who was reportedly among the raft of US officials opposed to Trump’s move) hastened to clarify that his department still needed to acquire a site for a new building, develop plans, receive congressional authorization for the spending [hehehe], “and then actually build the embassy.” That postpones the Jerusalem embassy’s inauguration to the sweet by-and-by – certainly way into, or beyond, Trump’s second term, if he gets it. The five dollar bet I offered on air on the day this travesty of a president was sworn in — that he wouldn’t complete his first term — is still open to all takers. Heck, for all the theatrical camouflage that he was making good on his campaign pledge, Trump went ahead and signed the waiver for the second time, just as all his predecessors did. And if it were fair to bet on a sure thing, I’d risk another five dollars on a wager that he’ll continue doing so semiannually for as many years as he has left to serve.

But, you say, Trump did overturn longstanding US policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city, didn’t he? Well, you might not have noticed that in practice, this occurred long ago. US ambassadors have presented their credentials to Israeli presidents in the latter’s Jerusalem residence since the 1950s, and have conducted their talks with Israeli leaders in their Jerusalem offices. US presidents have held state visits here and spoken in the Knesset. OK, Trump’s was the first verbal description of the city as Israel’s capital – but with the explicit proviso that this was no determination about borders and sovereignty in the city, which according to said longstanding US policy would be determined in negotiations. Now there’s a real “moron’s” (thanks, Rex!) oxymoron: according to Trump, a nation’s capital doesn’t have to be in its sovereign territory. The State Department has already clarified that there’s no change in its practice of registering births in Jerusalem only by city, not country. But anyway, unlike sovereignty, “capital city” – or “recognition” thereof — is not a term or concept of international law; the Vienna convention that governs diplomatic relations does not so much as mention it, much less require embassies to be situated in it.

Nonetheless, it has already been pointed out that there were foreign embassies in Jerusalem both before and after 1967 – 13 of them by 1981. Then Israel forced the issue by forgetting that possession is nine-tenths of the law, and passing a declaratory act that trumpeted the city’s status as capital – which focused international disapproval and led to every last one of those embassies moving out. This time too, a maxim was forgotten: leave well enough alone. I’m really delighted with the consolation prize: the Philippines’ Duterte, a president even much worse than his buddy Trump, has announced his intention to follow the latter’s example and move his embassy, as though Trump actually has.

Trump’s declaration, then, is for Israel a nothingburger. Why Netanyahu & Co. are celebrating it is obvious (why much of the opposition has joined in, less so). But why are the Palestinians, other Arabs and Muslims protesting so vehemently (and I hope, but doubt, that the violent manifestations of “rage” have been “contained,” as Israeli officialdom’s spin claimed on Friday)? Well, since every major US ally – and just about all the rest of the world – is so vocally critical of Trump’s move, why should the Palestinians miss this golden opportunity to press their case for Jerusalem?

But there’s another potential beneficiary. If indeed the Palestinian Authority blackballs Vice President Pence on his Christmas visit, it will confirm that the Trump-Kushner-Greenblatt crew has been disqualified by the Arabs as an honest broker for reviving the peace process with Israel. Guess who will gladly step in to fill the vacuum? This will be a nice Hanukkah gift for Vladimir Putin, who is already making quick progress promoting Russian presence in Middle Eastern arenas that his major intervention in Syria has overshadowed. A prime example is Russia’s military reestablishment in Egypt, which — for any reader of the new book I co-authored with Isabella Ginor, The Soviet-Israeli War 1967-1973 — creates an acute sense of deja vu.

Hey, you protest, Netanyahu would never let the Russians assume tutelage of the process! Think again. Bibi has already turned to Putin before (when he felt in trouble with Obama). Once the American embassy-move/capital-recognition gesture turns out to be as fraudulent as Trump University, the Prime Minister is perfectly capable of playing the Russian card again. All the more so if Putin offers him a fig leaf — e.g., some (just as empty) promises about limiting Iranian penetration of Syria. This is still over the horizon, but not all that far-fetched. I don’t know whether it was our exposure of Abu Mazen’s registration as a KGB agent in the 1980s that scuttled an Israeli-Palestinian summit in Moscow which was very much in the works a year ago — but the idea might well be resuscitated.

Whether this result of Trump’s caper is a planned and calculated payoff for Russian help in the US election, or just a windfall for Putin thanks to Bannonite prompting or plain Trumpian incompetence, remains to be seen. But for the time being, please stop parsing and analyzing Trump’s “strategy” or “agenda,” in the Middle East or elsewhere. There just isn’t any, beyond momentary self-glorification and wowing his shrinking base — which includes too many Israelis, as well as American supporters who are willing to fight to the last Israeli. As the Donald might tweet, “Sad!”

Gideon Remez is a member of ASMEA and associate fellow at the Truman Institute, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The opinions expressed here are his own.

Read the original post in The Times of Israel.

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