Will the State Department Sabotage Trump’s Israel Policy?
President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, was opposed by most of the US foreign policy establishment, which expressed fears that it would bring about apocalyptic reactions by Muslims across the Middle East — and end all hope for a negotiated peace. They were wrong; nevertheless, there are already indications that some Arabists in the State Department want to sabotage Trump’s policy.
When I refer to Arabists, I am talking about government officials, mostly — but not exclusively — in the State Department, who believe that the United States should minimize its ties with Israel. The first Arabists, many outright antisemites, opposed the creation of Israel, and spent the years following the UN partition vote seeking ways to reverse the decision. Even those with no animus toward Jews were driven by fears that support for Israel would allow the Soviets to gain a foothold in the region, and threaten US relations with the Arab states, particularly the oil producers. Even as US relations with the Arab world improved, Arabists maintained the fiction that the US could not simultaneously be allies with Israel.
One other feature of Arabist thought is the belief that Israel must be saved from itself; that is, Israelis don’t know what’s in their own best interests, and therefore must be forced by the United States to adopt the policies that the Arabists favor. Jewish Arabists are among the proponents of this undemocratic and paternalistic notion. Practically, this means applying pressure on Israel to capitulate to Arab demands based on the assumption that the Arabs will never sufficiently compromise, and it is up to the Israelis to make concessions to end the conflict.
The Arabists are also purveyors of the canard that the “Palestinian issue” is the basis for all the problems in the Middle East. Their interest in ending the conflict has little to do with any concern for the Palestinians (though some are indeed sympathetic to their plight), and everything to do with the belief that the persistence of the conflict threatens American interests in the region.
Barack Obama shared the Arabist mentality — and the result was, among other negative results, to kill peace prospects for eight years, and damage ties with Israel and our Arab allies.
Francis Fukuyama, who worked on the State Department policy planning staff, put it best when he said that the Arabists “have been more systematically wrong than any other area specialists in the diplomatic corps. This is because Arabists not only take on the cause of the Arabs, but also the Arabs’ tendency for self-delusion.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is now facing the challenge of Arabist opposition to the recognition of Jerusalem. Having lost the battle to prevent the decision, they now seem determined to do whatever they can to undermine it.
The first example was the State Department’s refusal to allow Americans born in Jerusalem to list their birthplace as Jerusalem, Israel. I believe this is the only place in the world where Americans are born without a country of origin. It is a direct contravention of the President’s recognition of Jerusalem and explained only by the Arabist mindset. Someone in the Trump administration allowed this move, and Trump must now oppose it if his new policy on Jerusalem is to have any force.
The second example is the relocation of the embassy. The United States could have moved the embassy on the same day as the announcement of recognition by simply switching signs on the consulate in Jerusalem. Opponents of the president’s decision managed to stave off that move and began to talk about the need to first find a location for a new building and a timeline of 3-4 years (some say 10) for construction. The hope was perhaps that Trump would be out after one term and his replacement could be convinced to reverse the decision.
Vice President Pence threw a wrench in this plan by announcing during his trip to Israel that the embassy will indeed move to the present location of the consulate, and that it will be done by 2019. A senior State Department official denied that there was a policy “to slow-roll the issue of an embassy move,” but also admitted that Tillerson had not officially signed off on this plan.
Moving the embassy to the consulate is also problematic for the Arabists who side with the Palestinian demand for a capital in East Jerusalem. They were already upset that Trump did not limit US recognition of Israel’s capital to West Jerusalem, and, again, hoped to limit the damage by convincing the president to build the new embassy in that part of Jerusalem — in order to demonstrate support for the Palestinian position. The consulate, if that does indeed become the site of the embassy, is located in what was considered no-man’s land during the Jordanian occupation, an area between the Western and Eastern parts of the city. This does not foreclose the possibility of establishing a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, but it does reinforce the message that the US is not limiting itsrecognition to one part of the city.
One other example of how the Arabists are likely having an impact occurred after our ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, requested that the State Department stop referring to Israel’s control of the West Bank as “occupation.” The correct term is “disputed.” Saying that Israel administers the disputed West Bank would be the more accurate description, but it would upset the Palestinians and other opponents of Israel’s continued control over the area. From the Arabist point of view, any action that angers the Arabs threatens our relations with them and the prospects for peace. Hence, the State Department rejected Friedman’s request. Once again, Trump should overrule them.
Despite more than seven decades of misguided policies, the Arabists have not altered their views and, if they had their way, would have this administration continue these failed policies. The great virtue of Trump’s policies is that they directly challenge the faulty assumptions of the Arabists. The sky did not fall when he recognized Jerusalem, ties with both Israel and our Arab allies weakened by Obama have been restored, and the prospects for peace have been improved by forcing the Palestinians to recognize reality and pressuring them to meet Israeli requirements for a negotiated end to the conflict.