Trump Has Blood on His Hands in the Middle East

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Predictably, President Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and that he eventually intends to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to that city caused protests, rioting, violence, and even military strikes in the West Bank and Gaza and protests around the world. Trump is indirectly responsible for the dead and injured.

Defenders of Trump and Israel’s Likud government say that he just stated facts on the ground—the functioning seat of the Israeli government has been in Jerusalem for almost 70 years--and that his words are not responsible for other people’s violent actions. Although strictly true on both counts, American presidents for those 70 years have avoided doing what Trump did, because of fears of inflaming the entire Middle East region and creating an anti-American backlash, which could increase anti-U.S. terrorism.

The reason for the inflammation in the Arab and Muslim worlds is that Trump’s declaration is even more one-sided in support for Israel than usual long-standing U.S. policy. That normal policy involves maintaining—and even increasing under the Obama administration to almost $ 4 billion dollars a year—U.S. military aid to Israel, while that country is trying to steal Palestinian land through continued settlement of occupied territory in the West Bank in violation of international law. Trump neglected to say that East Jerusalem, which has been illegally annexed by Israel, could also be the capital of any prospective Palestinian state. In any settlement on the future of Palestine, the status of Jerusalem has always been one of the trickiest issues. Trump has effectively given Israel what should have been negotiated in any future settlement.

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he realized that the Israelis and Palestinians were unlikely to reach a negotiated settlement on Palestine anytime soon and astutely—at least initially--decided to put the issue on the back burner. Instead, the inexperienced Trump, boasting that he is the master deal maker, not only jumped right into the issue, but delegated Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, as the administration’s lead to prepare the deal that would “solve” the problem.

In the past, to facilitate negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, the United States has always attempted, usually unsuccessfully, to be the honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians. This role is difficult to pull off when Israel gets at least almost $4 billion a year in U.S. military aid, while the Palestinian Authority gets only a measly $350 million in annual economic assistance and non-lethal security assistance (the latter of which mainly helps prevent violence against Israel). With the pro-Israel lobby exerting a stranglehold on the American domestic debate over Palestine, the United States is not—and can never be—a truly neutral mediator in the dispute. In fact, the almost $4 billion in annual U.S. military support and martial backing of the Jewish state merely makes it more intransigent toward a settlement with the Palestinians and more willing to continue stealing Palestinian land, through continued settlement of the West Bank, over the lame protestations of many U.S. administrations.

The Jews claim Jerusalem because large numbers lived there in biblical times; yet the Romans kicked them out in 135 CE. Islamic peoples subsequently conquered Jerusalem in 637 CE from the Byzantine Romans and ruled there almost 1,300 years, until the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of World War I in 1918 and the British took over Palestine. Jewish Zionists began to migrate to Palestine in the late 1800s and bought about seven percent of Palestine by 1948. In 1917, to get U.S. help in fighting the Germans in the world war, the British declared that there would be a Jewish homeland (not a state) in Palestine, thus essentially giving away Islamic lands to a third party. Moreover, in 1935, the British rulers of Palestine smashed an Arab revolt against them, shattering any military capability that the Arabs had. Meanwhile, Jewish forces became well armed. In 1948, the United Nations decided to partition Palestine and the Jews decided to provocatively declare the state of Israel, which President Harry Truman, for domestic political reasons, recognized almost immediately. The Arab countries attacked Israel and at the end of the 1948 war, Israel had gained the possession of 77 percent of Palestine—thus using armed force to grab another 70 percent of the territory during the war. In 1967, the Israeli-initiated war further added to Israeli-occupied Palestine by conquering the West Bank and Gaza.

Thus, the Palestinians have a valid claim to at least part of Palestine. Yet the Israeli government has already annexed East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians would want as a future capital, and is trying to steal the good parts of the West Bank through illegal settlement—leaving the Palestinians with un-connected Bantustans in the remainder of that territory.

Unfortunately, President Trump, merely to fulfill a campaign promise to his domestic political base, seems to be willing to further tip the scales in enabling bad Israeli behavior. Instead, he should just keep his mouth shut, slow roll the U.S. embassy’s move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and suspend Kushner’s efforts to find a settlement for Palestine, which was going nowhere even before Trump blew up the peace process—and now Palestine itself—with his blundering recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In Trump’s case, doing nothing is better than doing anything.