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Not madness, method

Updated December 11, 2017


THE decision may have been unexpected, but the reaction wasn’t. US President Donald Trump’s announcement of recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and initiating the move of the US embassy to that holy and hotly disputed city has elicited much sound and fury, much protest and denunciation.

There is no shortage of analysis of what the likely short- and long-term effects of this decision will be, but less focus has been given to what considerations prompted this decision in the first place.

Also read: Trump's recognition of Jerusalem will not bring peace to Israel — quite the opposite

As Trump correctly pointed out, the legal cover for this move had been provided in 1995 when the US Congress passed the Jerusalem embassy act, calling for relocating the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem by May 31st, 1999. That this never actually happened is because successive presidents chose to exercise their waivers in a nod to the enduring tenets of US foreign policy.

What prompted the Jerusalem move?

That didn’t stop them from making promises while on the campaign trail, of course. When Bill Clinton was looking to clinch the Democratic nomination, he attacked president George H.W. Bush for having “repeatedly challenged Israel’s sovereignty over a united Jerusalem”, and later promised that he and running mate Al Gore would “support Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel”. It didn’t happen.

In 2000, George W. Bush did the same, promising on the trail that “as soon as I take office I will begin the process of moving the US ambassador to the city Israel has chosen as its capital”.

Again, nothing happened.

Eight years later, Democratic candidate Barack Obama followed suit, telling an AIPAC conference that Jerusalem was the ‘capital of Israel’. But when Obama took his seat in the White House, reality set in and all the pillow-talk promises evaporated with the afterglow.

But Trump is cast in a mould quite different from not just previous presidents, but politicians in general: he is a man of his word and, for better or worse (usually the latter), he keeps his promises. Trump’s entire public image (and possibly his self-image as well) is that of the ‘outsider’, the disruptor who delivers and is here to drain the Washington swamp, the man who spits in the face of political elites and pundits, the man who tweets directly to the people in their own language, ‘covfefe’ and all.

Forget the geopolitical implications …he’s not thinking that far ahead and probably wouldn’t even if he could. He did it because this is what he does and this is why his people love him and his latest decision. Take the Christian evangelical voters: in the previous elections, 80 per cent of the evangelical vote went to Trump, as opposed to 16pc for Hillary. Organised and religiously motivated, this group sees the recognition of Jerusalem as the first step towards fulfilling biblical prophecy and ushering in the End Times.

For this lot, the rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon is the precursor to the events outlined in the Book of Revelation — prophecies that they take quite literally. The building of the temple will be followed by the Rapture, in which the faithful will be lifted bodily to heaven to form the Lord’s army while the rest of humanity suffers the rule of the Antichrist, a time known as the Tribulation. Then shall follow the arrival of the Messiah and the battle of Armageddon after which the Jews will be converted to the evangelical version of the true faith. Look it up.

Another group of core Trump supporters that hate Jews but love Israel are the so-called Alt-right. Take Richard Spe­n­­cer, the man who shouted “Heil Trump” during a Washington rally and was supportive of the torch rally in Charlot­tesville where slogans of “Jews shall not replace us” were shouted. In an interview to Israeli channel ten, he said: “I’m a white Zionist in the sense that I care about my people. I want us [white people]to have a secure homeland just like you want a secure homeland in Israel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is quite aware of this unholy alliance between Israeli right-wingers and the Alt-right, as evidenced by his reluctance to condemn their blatant anti-Semitism. They are, of course, allies of the moment and quite useful at that.

Last, but never least, this also bags Trump the unstinting support of the disproportionately powerful Israeli lobby while also likely swinging ordinary Jewish voters his way. For now, at least.

So while the world may wring its hands and wail, none of this will bother Trump, who has his eyes firmly set on a very domestic prize. Indeed, his response may echo that of Josef Stalin’s when he was asked to take the Vatican’s feelings into consideration: “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?” Stalin asked in turn. In Trump’s case, replace ‘divisions’ with ‘votes’.

The writer is a journalist.
Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2017