Two important truths have to be restated in order to understand the context of the US government’s decision to relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which officially took place on 14 May.
First, the precarious relationship between the US government and international law. Historically, the US has used international law to achieve its own political ends, and relegated international and human rights laws when they were seen as obstacles to US political and military ambitions.
A case in point was the US government’s manipulation of United Nation resolutions that paved the way for war against Iraq in 1990-91; yet, its dismissal of the UN as “irrelevant” when international consensus rejected American military intervention in Iraq in 2003.
However, a far more consistent example is the US attitude towards Israel and Palestine. For decades, the US has used its “veto” to block scores of resolutions condemning Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian land or calling for practical mechanisms to bring an end to Palestinian suffering and subjugation.
While the strategy works well at the UN Security Council, it has faced considerable limitations at the General Assembly, which is, by far, a more democratic and internationally representative body than the UNSC. Various US ambassadors – notable amongst them Madeline Albright and, today’s Nikki Haley – have unleashed wars of verbal abuse, threats and outright bullying against countries that refused to toe the American line.
Haley, in particular, although the least politically-experienced of all US ambassadors, has been the most outspoken. Her attacks on Palestinians and their supporters – as in the majority of the international community – are now staple in media coverage of UN proceedings.
While it is true that the US move to relocate its embassy is a “violation of international law”, it is of little essence to American foreign policy, which is essentially predicated on challenging or violating global principles of peace and conflict resolution.
The other important context is this: as per American law the US embassy was, legally speaking, already relocated to Jerusalem many years ago. “The Jerusalem Embassy Act” of 1995 was made effective on 8 November of that same year, thus becoming public law, bypassing the consent of the president. It passed with an absolute majority in the Senate (95-5) and the House (374-37).
Using a loophole in that same law, past administrations have signed a waiver, once every six months, to delay the inevitable move, which was intended to take place by 31 May 1999. The resolution was introduced by a Republican majority Congress; however, it won near consensus from both parties.
Although US President Donald Trump had signed the waiver once, in June 2017, a few months later, in December, he decided to take US support of Israel a step further by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. On 14 May 2018, that became a reality.
While it is important to remember that Trump’s decision, however daring, is consistent with the US anti-UN, anti-Palestinian and pro-Israel attitude, a question must be asked: why now?
The answer can be approached in three different ways: first, the kind of politician Trump is (extremely opportunistic); second, the nature of his political base (right-wing conservative Christian-Evangelicals) and, finally, the mounting political pressure which his faltering administration is experiencing on a daily basis.
First regarding Trump himself: In March 2016, then Republican presidential candidate, Trump, delivered his famous speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Here, he revealed the type of politician he truly is – by Washington’s standards, a “good politician”, as in one devoid of moral values.
In his speech he made many promises to Israel. The large crowd could rarely contain its giddiness.
Of the many false claims and dangerous promises Trump made, a particular passage stood out, for it offered early clues to what the future administration’s policy on Israel and Palestine would look like. The signs were not very promising:
“When the United States stands with Israel, the chances of peace really rise and rise exponentially. That’s what will happen when Donald Trump is president of the United States,” Trump declared, an untrue statement that was preceded with a loud applause and ended with an even louder cheer.
The truth, however, is that Trump’s love affair with Israel is actually relatively recent. He had made several pronouncements in the past that, in fact, irritated Israel and its influential backers in the US. But when his chances of becoming the Republican nominee grew, so did his willingness to say whatever it takes to win Israel’s and its friends’ approvals.
Second, Trump’s evangelical base: Trump is desperate to maintain the support of the very constituency that brought him to the White House in the first place. This right-wing, white, conservative, Christian-Evangelical constituency remains the foundation of his troubled presidency.
This constituency, a major bloc in the US political system, voted for Trump in solid numbers. Among the white Evangelicals, 81 per cent reportedly voted for him.
Although these voters claim to be “value voters”, their take on morality is often inconsistent and, at times, quite bizarre. Their “love” for Israel, for example, is quite provisional as they believe in prophecies pertaining to the “second coming of Jesus Christ” as a prelude to the “Rapture”: it is then that the faithful will be sent to heaven, and all the rest, including the Jews, will perish in a hellish eternity.
However, according to that inexplicable thinking, for the prophecy to be fulfilled, Jews would have to be in complete control over the land of Palestine.
As moronic and dark such ideas may seem to the rest of the world, they have created a temporary alliance between Israel’s right-wing government, the Evangelicals (of whom Vice President, Mike Pence, is an important member) and Donald Trump.
Which leads us to the third and final point: The massive political pressure suffered by Trump’s vulnerable administration.
The US is currently experiencing unprecedented political instability and polarisation. Talk of impeaching the president is gaining momentum, while his officials are often paraded before the Department of Justice investigators over various accusations, including collusion with foreign powers. Trump, himself, is being accused of various demeaning charges of indecency and corruption.
Under these circumstances, there is no decision or issue that Trump can approach without finding himself in a political storm, except for one issue, that of accommodating Israel to the fullest extent. Indeed, being pro-Israel has historically united the US’ two main parties, the Congress, the media and many Americans, leading among them, Trump’s political base.
However, Trump’s decision will neither cancel nor reverse international law. It simply means that the US has decided to drop the act, and walk wholly into the Israeli camp, further isolating itself from the rest of the world and, once more, openly defying international law.