In politics, grand gestures often backfire on those who make them. Think of Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich in 1938, waving a piece of paper with Adolf Hitler’s signature at the bottom and proclaiming, “peace in our time”.
The decision by President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a similarly dramatic act, contrary to all apparent common sense. Whether it will indeed be a Chamberlain moment for Trump, or whether it will be – as he predicts – the diplomatic masterstroke that gets the peace process between Israel and Palestine moving again, is yet to be determined.
Emotionally, Jerusalem has been the heart of Judaism literally for millennia and the country’s de facto capital since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
It contains some of the world’s most important Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious sites and is also the epicentre of Palestinian nationalism. Because of this disputed status, it has never been recognised as the Israeli capital internationally and resolving its legal status has always been one of the major issues in negotiations on the Palestinian conflict.
In practical terms, however, Trump’s move makes little difference. No other countries will extend recognition in the near future and there is not going to be an influx of foreign embassies moving to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
At a stroke, Trump has now upended decades of US policy. He has also put the US at odds with every one of its traditional allies in Europe, thumbed his nose at the United Nations, and ignored international law.
Conventional wisdom has it that Trump has provocatively touched a match to a powder keg. There are dire warnings of yet another intifada and US entities around the world are bracing themselves for a violent kickback. So why has Trump gone so far out on a limb? Part of it lies in the contempt he holds for an American political establishment that he perceives to be weak and hypocritical.
American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is enshrined in legislation that was passed as far back as 1995, with bipartisan support. However, the implementation has been waived at six-monthly intervals by every US president since.
Most observers would see this as realpolitik. Trump and those that elected him see it as moral cowardice, just another reason why America’s international influence and power are waning.
“While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver,” said Trump. “Today, I am delivering.”
This is Trump, the hard-boiled businessman, portraying himself as willing to face realities that effete professional politicians try to avoid. It’s an attitude that makes old diplomatic dances of predictable step and counter-step almost impossible. If you are doing what is scripted as a dignified waltz and your partner suddenly starts to break-dance, you are going to either have to find a new partner or else have a genuine heart-to-heart to resolve matters.
As his election against all odds showed, Trump is a master of disruptive politics. Prefacing the Jerusalem decision, Trump said: “We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies of the past.”
Trump’s provocative decision on Jerusalem has potential for disaster. But the flipside of recklessness is courage. If his unconventional approach does unclog the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, Trump will have pulled of a major coup.