President Donald J. Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel at the United Nations General Assembly (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

While President Trump’s move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has damaged Arab-American relations, the choice has strengthened the United States’s relationship with Israel and is evidence of the new administration’s antagonism against Iran.

On Wednesday, December 6, 2017, President Donald Trump announced that the United States government would formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (as opposed to the presently recognized capital, Tel Aviv). With his move standing in contrast to seven decades of American foreign policy in the region, President Trump’s decision has been the subject of intense intergovernmental scrutiny and concern and has further sparked anger across the Arab world.

In response to President Trump’s announcement, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) declared East Jerusalem (the Israeli government, which currently occupies Jerusalem, has said that the city cannot be divided in two) and rejected the United States’s moves as “dangerous.” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas likewise said that the US stance on Jerusalem has “disqualified” the country from future Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, by betraying an American bias toward the Israeli cause.  

The IOC’s backlash against Trump’s decision as well as a call to action by Palestinian groups have propelled protests in Palestine. In the Gaza Strip, a heavily-contested piece of Palestinian territory, two people were killed after thousands protested on Friday, December 15. Simultaneously, in Ramallah, two Palestinians were fatally shot by Israeli police after allegedly attempting to attack the officers. Following prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem (known in Christian and Jewish traditions as the Temple Mount), Palestinians attempted to protest in the Jerusalem’s Old City, the entrance to which had been barricaded off by Israeli police.

Beyond Palestine, Trump’s move has also sparked protests in Beirut and Amman but have spread to other Muslim-majority countries—such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Morocco—and Muslim-minority countries as well like the United States and Japan.

Trump’s declaration about Jerusalem has also attracted the attention of the United Nations as well. On December 18, the United Nations Security Council demanded that the Trump administration rescind its decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; a resolution that was vetoed by the American ambassador, Nikki Haley. But a nearly identical resolution was passed in the UN’s General Assembly on Thursday with only a handful of countries, including the United States and Israel, voting against it.

The move is primarily contested because, as Abbas said, it is evidence of the Trump administration’s support for Israel in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At the heart of the decades-long conflict between both sides is the city of Jerusalem, which carries substantial religious significance for Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

Past American presidents have insisted that the future of Jerusalem—whether it becomes an Arab or Jewish city, or divided between the—be the result of a direct decision between Palestine and Israel.

By recognizing the Israeli claim to Jerusalem as its capital, President Trump has whether intentionally or not, chosen to also recognize Jerusalem as Jewish, and not Arab, land.  

Yet while Trump’s decision may not have been the best choice to propel Arab-American relations, it has benefited Israel, and the future of the Jewish state, enormously. While many of the changes Trump has initiated toward Israel and Palestine have brought with them heavy support from the American Jewish population, a proposal to move the capital to Jerusalem does not.

In fact, a poll conducted in September by the American Jewish Committee found that only 16% of American Jews believed the American embassy should immediately be moved. By contrast, 44% did not believe the embassy should ever be moved, possibly fearing the instability that it will cause.

Thus, it seems likely that angering Iran is the primary purpose of Trump’s recent announcement— not garnering Israeli or American Jewish support. On December 18, the White House announced a new National Security Strategy, the beginning page of which describes the administration’s goal to “confront… the danger posed by the dictatorship in Iran.”

Iran and Israel have deeply opposed each other for decades and by moving closer to Israel, Trump is indirectly “confronting” Iran as his new strategy encourages.

But whether this confrontation does anything except for unnecessarily antagonizing Iran, and the entire Arab community is yet to be seen.

Yale Young Global Scholar, Hadley Copeland focuses on the North America, Middle East, and Europe.

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