Donald Trump and Jerusalem 'I Don't See Potential Upsides'
Richard Haass, 66, is a former U.S. diplomat and current director of the Council on Foreign Relations. He says that the timing of President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the true capital of Israel is troubling and potentially dangerous.
DER SPIEGEL: U.S. President Donald Trump has been heavily criticized for his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and decision to move the U.S. Embassy to the city. The United Nations, Arab leaders and even the Pope are opposed to the move. Why is it so controversial, and so significant?
Haass: Jerusalem is a holy site for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Israelis and Palestinians both lay claim to it as their capital. The decision is controversial because Jerusalem is the most sensitive of all the issues that need to be addressed in order to achieve a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. But with this step, Donald Trump determined an important aspect of the United States' position towards Jerusalem before any agreement. Most of the rest of the world feels that it ought not to be dealt with first, that it ought not to be dealt with separately, and that it ought not to be dealt with unilaterally.
DER SPIEGEL: Trump claims that "this is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality" - the Israeli government is based in Jerusalem, after all. He also says that refraining from recognizing the city as Israel's capital hasn't brought peace any closer.
Haass: The U.S. position on Jerusalem was not the reason why there hasn't been progress towards peace. The reason is that both the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership are divided. And there is an enormous gap between Israelis and Palestinians. To say that this decision is only recognizing reality, that Jerusalem is the actual capital of Israel - well, that's true. But it's a selective recognition of reality. Trump could have recognized it and then also said something about the Palestinian relationship with Jerusalem. The problem with his statement is that it is one-sided and only addresses Israel.
DER SPIEGEL: But Trump also said his decision means nothing regarding the final borders of the Israeli capital and the status of East Jerusalem. Doesn't that matter?
Haass: It doesn't. It's true, by itself this decision doesn't affect anything else about the conflict beyond the Jerusalem issue. But the question you have to ask is: Does it advance diplomatic prospects to single it out now, unilaterally? I don't see potential upsides. I do see potential downsides.
DER SPIEGEL: When looking at all the other conflicts currently going on in the world, it does seem to be a terrible time to risk a new conflict.
Haass: Absolutely. I have argued just that - that Trump's inbox is already overflowing. The U.S. is facing a number of challenges, from North Korea to Ukraine, from Syria to Venezuela, and so forth. Why add another one to the inbox? I don't see any reason the U.S. needed to do this now. I don't see a compelling argument, even if one thought that, on principle, this was a good idea.
DER SPIEGEL: The president, however, says that his decision will advance the peace process - which sounds almost cynical, since the Palestinian side has condemned it in the strongest terms. Do you see any way in which Trump's move could help the peace process?
Haass: If the president had connected the Jerusalem question to some other positions, linking it to Israeli and Palestinian behavior or putting the Jerusalem statement in a larger context of U.S. policy, it could have potentially advanced the peace process. But I don't see how singling it out might help.
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DER SPIEGEL: Is this the end of the peace initiative being pursued by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner? Or perhaps the end of any Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
Haass: Even before this decision, the prospects for peace were poor, and after this decision the prospects for peace are poor. Whether this administration, whether Jared Kushner will come up with a proposal, I don't know. There have been consultations going on for a while between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. But I don't see any grounds for optimism. And I certainly don't see how recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital now would improve the prospects of any plan.
DER SPIEGEL: Trump also said that he would support a two-state solution if both sides agree to it. What is your interpretation of that statement?
Haass: I think it's important to state this principle. But it's not enough to reiterate it. You then have to ask yourself: Does this announcement bring you any closer to a two-state solution? It's not obvious to me. I'd love to be wrong, but I fear I am right.
DER SPIEGEL: Why did Trump decide to make this announcement now? Why not wait for Jared Kushner's peace plan to produce meaningful results?
Haass: I can only speculate. Trump promised to recognize Jerusalem during his campaign. Now he not only said that going ahead with this decision wouldn't hurt, he said it would help. I'll let others judge what political motives there might have been.
DER SPIEGEL: There are reports that the Israelis pressured Trump to make this announcement. Do you believe that might have played a role?
Haass: Many Israelis have long argued for this, not just with Donald Trump, but with many U.S. governments. It has been their long-standing desire, as well as that of many Americans. But there is nothing new about that.
DER SPIEGEL: What does it mean for the U.S.-Israeli alliance? Does it strengthen it?
Haass: The Israelis will certainly appreciate it. But the U.S.-Israeli relationship is a complicated one. We will still have our disagreements - about the details of a peace plan, over settlements.
DER SPIEGEL: Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas warned that this decision helps "extremist organizations wage a religious war that would harm the entire region." Do you share this concern?
Haass: This is the danger - that this will be seized upon by Iran, and by many of the Islamic groups, and that they will incite extremists to attack American embassies, or businesses, or tourists. I am not predicting this will happen, but it could happen.
DER SPIEGEL: This decision is yet another unilateral move by the Trump administration that alienates core U.S. allies in Europe and Asia - after walking out of the Paris climate accord and threatening to break up the nuclear deal with Iran. What does all of this mean for trans-Atlantic relations?
Haass: Well, just look at the cool reception (U.S. Secretary of State Rex) Tillerson received this week in Europe. It has been a bad week for the trans-Atlantic alliance, and for U.S. diplomacy in general. First, there was our refusal to attend the UN conference on migration in Mexico, at a time when one of every 100 people in the world is uprooted. And now this. It all adds up to the perception that the United States acts unilaterally and does not place much emphasis on the preferences and views of its allies. Although, to be fair, this decision was something desired by one ally, which is Israel. But in Europe, it reinforces the perception that the United States of Donald Trump is a very different United States.
DER SPIEGEL: While many Arab leaders have strongly criticized Trump for this move, Saudi Arabia's king reacted with notable restraint. How do you interpret that?
Haass: The Saudis have gone out of their way to build a relationship with this administration. Their leadership sees Donald Trump as a major improvement over his predecessor. My sense is they want to avoid saying things that could put that relationship in jeopardy.
DER SPIEGEL: But Saudi Arabia's king is the custodian of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, and the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem is the third-holiest site of Islam. Can the Saudi king afford to not defend Jerusalem more vociferously as a holy site for Palestinians and all Muslims?
Haass: It will be interesting to see how the Saudi position evolves if there are protests. If there are protests, and if they become strong, will the Saudi government come under pressure to become critical of the United States? The Saudi leadership wants a good relationship with the U.S., but at the same time, it is trying to consolidate its position internally.
DER SPIEGEL: How does the Jerusalem crisis affect the shared strategic goal of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the U.S. to limit Iranian influence in the region?
Haass: Riots because of the Jerusalem issue could make it harder for that cooperation to come about, because it could become difficult for the Saudis to be seen as getting too close to the Americans and Israelis.
DER SPIEGEL: What other possible geopolitical consequences do you see?
Haass: The United States acting unilaterally and separating itself from many of its traditional allies will become part of the narrative of Donald Trump's foreign policy. Additionally, this decision could make it more difficult for the United States to cooperate with other Arab governments. But the most urgent question, I think, is whether this decision will lead to additional violence around the world.