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Gaza and Jerusalem: Assessing the real costs of 'low-cost' US diplomacy

model of thought

The optics were inescapably awful. Even as VIPs in Jerusalem dedicated the relocated US embassy, Israeli soldiers killed dozens of Palestinian protesters in Gaza. But beyond the timing, the partisan nature of the move has implications for Mideast peace and US diplomacy.

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US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley is seen on a video screen in an interpreter's booth as she speaks during a Security Council meeting on the situation in Gaza, May 15 at UN headquarters in New York.

Mary Altaffer/AP

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President Trump has boasted to spirited applause at political rallies over recent weeks that his good sense as a businessman allowed him to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem for a fraction of the billion-dollar cost diplomats predicted.

As if to underscore the low cost of the move, the 800 invitees to Monday’s dedication ceremony at what until now was the US consulate in Jerusalem were served pretzels and water – nothing more.

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Of course when the United States gets around to constructing a new embassy building in Jerusalem to replace the old one in Tel Aviv, the price tag will no doubt approximate the $1 billion experts have ball-parked since Mr. Trump announced the controversial move in December.

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But the real and long-term costs of a move that reverses decades of policy from Republican and Democratic administrations alike – and which flies in the face of US-led regional peace efforts – are likely to be measured in repercussions that go beyond a few cases of bottled water and bags of pretzels, many Middle East experts say.

The embassy move certainly puts a peace process already on life support in even deeper peril, if it doesn’t simply end prospects for a return to negotiations under this American administration, some regional experts say.

Some of America’s Arab allies – and in particular Jordan and Egypt, which are among the most loyal (but also most dependent) – are less sure of the reliability of relations with the US, others add. And European allies, they say, see the US embassy move as another unilateral Trump decision on the international stage that further destabilizes an already conflict-ridden region.

And perhaps the most disconcerting consequence a wide range of analysts see not just from the embassy move itself, but in the way it was carried out, is how it has accelerated the transformation of Israel into a partisan issue in the US.

“Until recently there was no divide in our support for Israel, but the spectacle of a very partisan embassy dedication ceremony Monday only underscored how Israel is becoming just another piece of the partisan fight that engulfs our country,” says David Halperin, executive director of the Israel Policy Forum, a New York-based bipartisan organization that supports securing Israel’s future through conclusion of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“That should be a very worrisome development for anyone, like us, who supports a strong Israel – unless in fact you see this kind of cost as a gain, as the Trump administration seems to,” he adds.

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In Gaza, deadly clashes

Indeed, the costs of a foreign-policy decision that supporters laud as bold and morally courageous, but which detractors fault for exacerbating Middle East tensions for the sake of fulfilling a campaign promise, are already piling up.

Even as speakers at Monday’s embassy dedication lauded the embassy move as an expression of peace, Palestinian protesters less than 50 miles away along the Israel-Gaza border were being repelled with Israeli soldiers’ live fire and tear gas. By the end of Monday more than 55 protesters had been killed.

The violent demonstrations continued Tuesday, as Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank marked the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the expulsion and flight of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in the newly declared state of Israel.

But the repercussions of the US embassy move to Jerusalem are likely to continue well after the violence dies down.

Israelis hold American and Israeli flags in Jerusalem May 14, with the new US Embassy in the background. The opening of the embassy was seen as exacerbating Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Trump continues to say he wants to achieve “the greatest deal of all” by securing peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. But a move that disrupts further a teetering balance by putting the US even more solidly on one side in the conflict sinks deeper the traditional role the US has played as an “honest broker” in peace talks – and makes achieving Trump’s “ultimate deal” even less likely.

Among US allies and partners, the embassy move was met with nearly unanimous negative reaction. Most nations keep their embassies in Tel Aviv, as the US did until Monday, in international recognition of Jerusalem’s status as perhaps the top irritant in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Many Middle East experts in the US who supported the embassy move as a long-delayed recognition of reality – that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and that recognizing it as such does not determine its final status in a peace accord – lament the impact of the way the move was carried out.

“When it comes to the Middle East we tend to exaggerate the importance of events as they are happening. We’ve seen a pattern of that every time there is violence, particularly over some US action or policy,” says Michael Rubin, a resident Middle East scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “But I do think we should worry about how Israel is transforming into a political football in the US.”

Netanyahu's role

The hyper-partisan nature of the embassy dedication ceremony underscored a tendency set in motion by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his “antagonism” of Democrats, Mr. Rubin says. He cites in particular Mr. Netanyahu’s willingness to take a political side in the US debate over President Obama’s signature foreign-policy accomplishment, the Iran nuclear deal.

Netanyahu’s “unabashed embrace of President Trump has greater ramifications in Congress and in the US broadly than in Israel,” Rubin says. He notes that four US senators, all Republicans, attended Monday’s ceremony. And he says it was politically pointed but “tactless” to leave the former US ambassador to Israel, Obama appointee Daniel Shapiro, off the invite list.

Indeed the politicization of US Israel policy was highlighted by the new US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, when he told an audience at a pre-embassy dedication event Monday that the move is playing particularly well with Trump’s base.

“One of the things that gratifies me tremendously is that now we are entering yet another campaign season and as the president travels throughout the nation, his biggest applause line in places like Indiana and Michigan – I’m not talking about Long Island or Borough Park – is when he reminds people he is moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Ambassador Friedman said. “It is the single most popular thing he has done.”

On the other hand, the political gains Trump has secured with the embassy move have been offset by the deepening divisions among American Jews over US Middle East policy, according to Mr. Halperin ­– and a further alienation of most American Jews from the Trump administration.

Moreover, Halperin worries that the blunt-force tactics Trump is employing in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and Netanyahu’s full embrace of those tactics – are “fueling a growing disaffection of young American Jews” toward Israel.

That disaffection will only have been exacerbated by the “split-screen” optics of an embassy dedication ceremony taking place even as dozens of Palestinian protesters died at the hands of Israeli soldiers a few dozen miles away. “Many of us who supported the move to Jerusalem saw the timing on the eve of Nakba day as an unforced error that is going to reverberate for a long time to come,” Halperin says.

Lack of balance

Indeed, to some regional experts, the biggest impact will be not so much from the US embassy move itself, but from the fact that the one world power that has been able to move the peace process along by balancing steps favored by both sides gave Israel a coveted prize without even mentioning Palestinian aspirations.

“When the US takes a hugely consequential step like moving its embassy to Jerusalem without saying anything about Palestinians aspirations for the city, it effectively takes itself out of the game,” says Nathan Stock, a non-resident scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington.

If Trump had really wanted to further his goal of a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, Mr. Stock says, “he would have made a statement in December supporting Palestinian aspirations for a capital in East Jerusalem at the same time he announced the embassy move. Now that would have been a bold move,” he adds, “but he didn’t do that.”

Stock, an expert in Palestinian politics, says that instead of focusing on the bloodshed in the recent Gaza buffer zone violence, more attention should be paid to the largely nonviolent and unarmed nature of the Palestinian protests.

“Rockets are not flying from Gaza into Israel,” he says, “so I think the question now is, does something constructive come out of this” largely nonviolent mobilization, he says. “If not, I’m concerned the result could be something much worse.”

Rubin of AEI says that those looking for something positive at this point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have to hope for some resolution of the deep divides among Palestinians. “The looming issue now is Palestinian politics, that’s really what the Gaza violence is about, but we’re getting distracted” by the spectacle of the US embassy move, he says.

If the Palestinians can resolve their leadership issues and become a stronger, unified party in the conflict, it could be something an intrigued Trump could seize upon to accomplish his “ultimate deal,” Rubin says.

Noting Trump’s proclivity for surprise moves and reversing his thinking on issues, Rubin says, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump unilaterally designates as part of his tightly held peace plan that certain neighborhoods in Jerusalem are to be Palestine’s capital,” he says. “People may find Trump suddenly siding with the other camp.”

• Correspondent Dina Kraft contributed from Jerusalem.