I was called by an Irish radio station in Dublin to respond to President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. What did I think was going on inside the US president’s mind, I was asked? And I replied immediately: “I don’t have the key to the lunatic asylum.”
What might once have seemed an outrageously over-the-top remark was simply accepted as a normal journalistic reaction to the leader of the world’s greatest superpower. And re-listening to the speech that Trump made in the White House, I realised I should have been far less restrained. The very text of the document is insane, preposterous and shameful.
Goodbye Palestine. Goodbye the “two-state” solution. Goodbye the Palestinians. For this new Israeli “capital” is not for them. Trump did not even use the word “Palestine”. He talked about “Israel and the Palestinians” — in other words, of a state and of those who do not deserve — and can no longer aspire to — a state.
No wonder I received a call in Beirut last night from a Palestinian woman who had just listened to the Trump destruction of the “peace process”. “Remember Kingdom of Heaven?” she asked me, referring to Ridley Scott’s great movie of the 1187 fall of Jerusalem. “Well it’s now the Kingdom of Hell.”
It’s not the Kingdom of Hell, of course. The Palestinians have been living in a kind of hell for a 100 years, ever since the Balfour Declaration declared Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, when a single sentence — in which our beloved Theresa May takes such “pride” — became a textbook for refugeedom and the future dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs from their lands.
As usual, the Arab response this week was sickening, warning of the “dangers” of Trump’s decision, which was “unjustified and irresponsible” — this piece of fluff produced by King Salman of Saudi Arabia — and we can be sure that in the coming days many an “emergency committee” will be formed by Arab and Muslim institutions to deal with this “danger”. They will, as we all know, be worthless.
But it was the linguistic analysis of Noam Chomsky when I was at university — he later became a good friend — that I applied to the Trump speech. The first thing I spotted was, as I mentioned above, the absence of “Palestine”. I always put the word in quotation marks because I don’t believe it will ever exist as a state. Go and look at the Jewish colonies in the West Bank and it’s clear that Israel has no intention that it should exist in the future. But that’s no excuse for Trump. In the spirit of the Balfour Declaration — which referred to Jews but to the Arabs as “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” — Trump downgrades the Arabs of Palestine to “Palestinians”.
Yet even at the start, the chicanery begins. Trump talks about “very fresh thinking” and “new approaches”. But there is nothing new about Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, since the Israelis have been banging on about this for decades. What is “new” is that — for the benefit of his party, Christian Evangelicals and those who claim to be American supporters of Israel — Trump has simply turned away from any notion of fairness in peace negotiations and run with Israel’s ball. Past presidents have issued waivers against the 1995 Jerusalem Congress Act, not because “delaying the recognition of Jerusalem would advance the cause of peace” but because that recognition should be given to the city as a capital for two peoples and two states — not one.
Then Trump tells us that his decision “is in the best interests” of the US. But he can’t explain how — by effectively taking America out of future “peace” negotiations and destroying any claim (admittedly dubious by now) that the US is an “honest broker” in these talks — this will benefit Washington. It clearly won’t — though it might help Trump’s party funding — since it further lowers American power, prestige and standing across the Middle East.
Then he claims that “like every other sovereign nation”, Israel has the right to determine its own capital. Up to a point, Lord Copper. For when other people — the Arabs rather than just the Jews — also want to claim that city as a capital (or at least the east of it), then that right is suspended until a final peace comes into existence.
Israel may claim all of Jerusalem as its eternal and undivided capital — as Netanyahu also claims that Israel is the “Jewish state”, despite the fact that more than 20 per cent of the people of Israel are Muslim Arabs who live inside its borders — but America’s recognition of this claim means that Jerusalem can never be the capital of another nation.
And here’s the rub. We don’t have the slightest idea of the real borders of this “capital”. Trump actually acknowledged this, in a line that went largely unreported, when he said that “we are not taking a position on … the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem”. In other words, he recognised the sovereignty of a country over all of Jerusalem without knowing exactly where that city’s borders lie.
In fact, we don’t have the slightest idea of just where Israel’s eastern border is. Does it lie along the old front line that divided Jerusalem? Does it lie a mile or so to the east of east Jerusalem? Or does it lie along the Jordan river? In which case, goodbye Palestine. Trump has awarded Israel the right to a whole city as its capital but hasn’t the slightest idea where the eastern border of this country is, let alone the frontier of Jerusalem.
The world was happy to accept Tel Aviv as a temporary capital — as it was to pretend that Jericho or Ramallah was the “capital” of the Palestine Authority after Arafat arrived there. But Jerusalem was not to be recognised as the Israeli capital even though Israel claimed it was. Then we have Trump stating that in this “most successful” democracy, “people of all faiths are free to live and worship according to their conscience”.
I trust he won’t be telling that to the more than 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank who are not free to worship in Jerusalem without a special pass, or the population of besieged Gaza who cannot hope to reach the city. Yet Trump claims his decision is merely “a recognition of reality”. I suppose his ambassador in Tel Aviv — soon, presumably, in Jerusalem (if only, so far, in a hotel room) — believes this tosh; for it was he who claimed that Israel only occupied “two per cent” of the West Bank.
And this new embassy, when it is eventually completed, will become “a magnificent tribute to peace”, according to Trump. Given the bunkers into which most US embassies in the Middle East have turned, it’s going to be a place with armoured gates and pre-stressed concrete walls and lots of inner bunkers for its diplomatic staff. But by then, I suppose, Trump will be gone. Or will he?
As usual, we had the Trump waffle. He wants “a great deal” for the Israelis and Palestinians, a peace agreement that is “acceptable to both sides” — even though this is not possible when he’s recognised all of Jerusalem as Israeli before the so-called “final status” talks, which the world still fondly expects to take place between “both sides”. But if Jerusalem is “one of the most sensitive issues” in these talks, if there was going to be “disagreement and dissent” about his announcement — all of which he said — then why on earth did he make the decision at all?
Only when he descended into Blair-like verbosity — that the future of the region was held back by “bloodshed, ignorance and terror” — did it really become too much to stomach any more of these lies. If people are supposed to respond to “disagreement” with “reasoned debate, not violence”, what is the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital supposed to produce? A “debate”, for heaven’s sake? Is that what to “rethink old assumptions” means?
Enough of this twaddle. What more folly can this wretched man dream up and lie about? So what was going on in his befuddled mind when he made this decision? Sure, he wants to follow up on his campaign promises. The guy is crackers. And it will take many years for his country to recover from this latest act of folly.
—By arrangement with The Independent
Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2017