Janine Jackson interviewed Phyllis Bennis about Trump’s Jerusalem move for the December 15, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Donald Trump’s decision to officially “recognize” Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, including possibly moving the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, was widely reported as a surprising break with previous US policy. Not surprising in that overturning previous policy is Trump’s favorite thing, but perhaps in its potential to stir up questions that US policy and media often artfully avoid.
Here to help us with some context for this recent move is Phyllis Bennis. She directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies; author of many titles, including Understanding the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict, now in its sixth, updated edition. She joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Phyllis Bennis.
Phyllis Bennis: Good to be with you.
JJ: We know Trump hates to do what previous presidents have done, but previous administrations have managed to maintain utter fealty to Israel, while still avoiding this particular tinderbox, as they say. So why do you think, in general terms, Trump is making this move?
PB: I think, first of all, we should recognize that so far, despite the very provocative announcement about the intention of moving the embassy in the future, and right now recognizing Jerusalem, it didn’t actually change anything on the ground.
Despite US claims that settlements in Jerusalem, for instance, are an obstacle to peace, something like that, the US has done nothing over the years to prevent settlement construction in Jerusalem, to protect Palestinians living in Jerusalem, who, of course, are not considered citizens of Israel. They can vote only in municipal elections, not in national elections; they don’t have the rights of citizenship.
So it’s not as much of a diversion from earlier US policy as one might think. It is, of course, very provocative, and I think the immediate reason for it had to do with the deadline that came up last week. Every six months, by law, the US president is required to either move the embassy, or certify to Congress that they are not moving the embassy because it’s not in the US national interest. When Congress passed the law back in 1995, they basically gave the president an out, because even these hard-core Israel supporters in the US Congress recognized that this was a really stupid thing to do.
PB: It would be really provocative in the region, in the world, it would isolate the US, all those reasons. So they wrote into the law a way out. They wrote in a waiver that every six months, the president can simply sign off and say, I support this, this is great, but I’m not going to do it, because it’s not good for US national security.
PB: Trump did that six months ago, signed the waiver. And in fact, this time around he did also, saying that it will take years to build a new, great embassy, an embassy that’s going to make us great again. Right? So in that context, it wasn’t such a huge deal, but he had to do something that week. That was the deadline.
And that’s where you get to the question of his relationship to his base, which includes a very big component of right-wing Christian Zionists, Evangelical Christian Zionists, who have been pushing for a long time for this symbolic claim, for the US to give Jerusalem to Israel, or as the Evangelicals would see it, give Jerusalem to the Jews. That was really what was at stake here for Trump, was that part of his political base.
And there was always the matter of Sheldon Adelson, his top funder, top supporter, a longtime supporter of Israel, very supportive of the right wing within Israel, supportive of the settler movement, and he was also getting very impatient with Trump, and putting the squeeze on and saying, when are you going to do this? You promised to do this, you said in your campaign you’re going to do this; it’s about time, you should do this.
PB: So all of that was in play when this deadline came up. It took place, though—and this is what I think is a little trickier, Janine, because there’s a part of it that is kind of counterintuitive. It took place in a moment when there was this regional realignment going on, and that’s what makes this a little bit harder to figure out, a little bit harder to understand, unless we take the position, as many do, that there is no strategic approach in this White House, and they’re just lashing out and taking positions without much consideration of the aftermath, which may well be the case.
PB: Because what we’re looking at in the region is this situation where the US interest, led by Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of Trump, who’s been leading this so-called Middle East initiative, his big regional initiative is to build a coalition against Iran, and his co-conspirator in that effort is the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, who’s widely known as MBS. So the two crown princes, if you will, they’ve established this little bromance. Jared’s been running off to Saudi Arabia several times, he’s been there I think four times in the last few months, spending a lot of time with the prince. They’ve closeted themselves out in some ranch to talk until four in the morning, figuring out strategy, and what they’re trying to do is figure out a way to bring Saudi Arabia and Israel together to lead this anti-Iran coalition.
That would be really hard for Saudi Arabia, because they’ve kind of claimed their political legitimacy partly by opposing Israel. So it’s never been real, the government in Saudi Arabia has wanted for a long time to normalize relations with Tel Aviv, but they couldn’t ever be public about it. So the goal, part of the reason they wanted to have an Israeli/Palestinian peace process underway, was precisely so they could tell the population of Saudi Arabia: You see, everything’s OK now. The Palestinians aren’t being oppressed anymore, we don’t have to worry about the Palestinians now, they’re all OK, we can go on to the big target, which is Iran. And we’ll get Israel in there with us.
By taking this position on Jerusalem, they made that much, much harder. It’s going to be almost impossible, right now at least, for the government in Saudi Arabia to convince its population that there’s a peace process underway that’s serious, that the Palestinians are doing fine, that the Palestinians support this. It’s going to make that almost impossible. So that’s the part that doesn’t have a real answer, about how did the timing of this play out.
PB: It’s become much more complicated than it might have been.
JJ: It’s also hard to understand, just from the perspective of citizen media-consumer, because there are so many kind of scrims of reality.
JJ: There are things that we say we’re doing, but we’re not really doing. Well, one thing, in terms of just the way media construct the story, you and others have suggested that if this, minimally, does in the idea of the US as the “honest broker,” that that might be not for the worst.
PB: Yeah, that’s an interesting part of it. You do hear this all the time, even from commentators and journalists who absolutely know better, but they fall into this trap somehow of saying, “Well, this is the end of the US role as the honest broker.” You want to shake them and say, when was the US ever an honest broker?
I mean—and this isn’t just my opinion, as a critic of US foreign policy or a critic of Israel. Aaron David Miller, one of the long-time negotiators from the State Department, who was part of these various failed negotiation processes for 25 years, who’s basically—his credential now, he’s on TV all the time, his credential is, I’ve been part of these negotiations for 25 years. You want to say well, yeah, but you failed for 25 years, why are you still talking?
PB: But he wrote in his book about how the US team always acted as, quote, “Israel’s lawyers.”
That was his words, not mine.
PB: So — and that’s not exactly secret, he’s one of the most popular, sought-after pundits in DC. So what does it mean that people still keep saying, “The US is an honest broker, but this puts that at risk”? Well, the US wasn’t an honest broker, so there’s nothing at risk here. And you’re right that if this leads to a recognition among parts of the press that were never willing to acknowledge it before that, no, the US is not an honest broker, that’s not a bad thing for people to start recognizing.
I think, unfortunately, there are an awful lot of people in this country who kind of equate the idea that the US calls the meetings, the US decides who to invite, who gets to sit at the table, the shape of the table, all those things. That gets equated with being a, quote, “honest broker,” which people somehow seem to think means being evenhanded, supporting equality between the two sides. And it doesn’t.
I mean, on one level you can say, yeah, the US is an honest broker, the way a real estate broker is an honest broker working for one side.
PB: They may be honest, but they’re working for one side, just like the US.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Phyllis Bennis. She directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her article, “The Far-Reaching Risks of Trump’s Jerusalem Decision,” can be found on Common Dreams. Phyllis Bennis, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
PB: Thank you, Janine. It’s been a pleasure.