Egypt and Saudi Arabia aren’t democracies, but they’re still sensitive to public opinion. Actions that upset their populations provoke protests, boost ISIS recruitment, and require them to devote more resources to repression. Making their people’s first and second concerns worse is a terrible way to rally them to confront the third and fifth.
And it’s not as if Americans are clamoring to move the embassy. Many Trump supporters describe themselves as pro-Israel, but it’s far from their most important concern — jobs, immigration, healthcare, ISIS, etc. — and the specific question of the embassy barely registers. Only 4 percent of American Jews say Israel is their top issue, with a majority ranking it 7th or 8th.
November 2017 poll from the University of Maryland found that 59 percent want the United States to favor neither Israel nor the Palestinians. However, 58 percent of Republicans want the U.S. to favor Israel, compared to 38 percent who say favor neither (2 percent of Republicans and 6 percent of Americans want the U.S. to favor the Palestinians). But when asked about the embassy, only 49 percent of Republicans — and 31 percent of Americans overall — say the United States should move it to Jerusalem.
If Americans don’t want it — Republicans are split but consider it a low priority, most U.S. allies in the Middle East strongly oppose it, and it undermines the Trump administration’s regional strategy — why is the president doing it?
The most likely answer is because a small number of Americans and about a third of Israelis reject all the Palestinians’ claims — sometimes arguing there’s no such thing as a Palestinian — while advocating Israeli colonization and annexation of the West Bank.
For decades after Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, almost all Israeli leaders publicly acknowledged that Israel would eventually give it up. As settlements expanded — first along the border of Israel proper, then isolated outposts deep into the West Bank — and the political power of the settler movement grew, some Israeli politicians began to call for annexation of Judea and Samaria (the Biblical names for the West Bank).
Israel has many legitimate security concerns, but outpost settlements are a security liability. They place a few zealous Israelis miles from Israel proper, and often appropriate water and arable land Palestinians were using. They are difficult to protect, and sometimes get into skirmishes with surrounding Palestinians. The only logic for them is colonization.
A few prominent right-wing Americans support annexing the West Bank, including billionaire Sheldon Adelson — who donates heavily to Republicans and uses the Israeli newspaper he owns to support the settler movement — as well as current U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Based on his foundation’s donations, Kushner may as well, though he hasn’t said so in public.
In a speech on August 28, 2017 marking the 50th anniversary of the first Israeli settlements after the Six-Day War, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed never remove any West Bank settlements, saying
This is the land of our fathers, this is our land. We are here to stay, forever.
As a result, the peace process has served as cover for elements on both sides that reject peace. While there’s little doubt American mediators wanted to move the peace process forward, their efforts have given the appearance of progress without actually achieving any. That gives people who support the two state solution the veneer of a peace process, while facts on the ground continually make peace less likely.
By forfeiting America’s claim to be an impartial arbiter, Trump ends the pipe dream that Israel-Palestine will separate into two states, living side-by-side in peace.
By moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Trump has aligned the United States with the undemocratic one state solution embraced by the settler movement, and increasingly by Netanyahu and his Likud party.
In his speech, Trump said “it would be folly to assume repeating the exact same formula would produce a better result.” He’s right.
But he also claimed moving the embassy will advance the peace process, and that’s wrong.
If doing one thing isn’t working, doing something else might make things better.
But it can also make things worse.