Middle East update: December 6 2017


Donald Trump made it official on Wednesday: he does, in fact, wear adult diapers the United States recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and he has ordered the State Department to move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. In making this announcement, he actually tried to suggest that he was advancing the Israel-Palestine peace process rather than driving it deeper into the ditch:

Trump said: “All challenges demand new approaches. My announcement today marks the beginning of a new approach to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.


The president said that the US remained committed to a two-state solution as long as the Israelis and Palestinians were, and insisted that he was not dictating how much of Jerusalem should constitute Israel’s capital – leaving option the possibility that East Jerusalem would be the capital of a future Palestinian state.


Trump said “we are not taking a position on any final status issues” of which the fate of the holy city is one of the most emotive, and that it would be up to Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate boundaries.

Trump’s “new approach to the conflict” can be summed up as “Fuck the Palestinians,” and the hollow dangling of the possibility of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state is pure cynicism. There’s not going to be a future Palestinian state, at least not one that resembles any independent state anywhere else in the world, because Israel and the United States will never allow it. Recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was supposed to one of the few carrots the Palestinians could dangle in front of Israel as a bargaining chip. The United States just took it away from them, rendering an already terribly lopsided negotiation even more so.

The Israeli far-right has long argued that this is the only path to peace, that what is needed is for Israel and the United States to make it clear to the Palestinians that they cannot and will not get anything, ever, and so it’s better to stop struggling and learn to live with occupation and apartheid. I guess we’re about to see if they’re right. This decision, and other news that’s emerged in the past few days, suggests that, to the extent he’s really thought about this issue at all, Trump agrees with this framework.

Since it became clear last week that this announcement was coming down the pike, amid resoundingly negative global reaction, writers have been trying to explain why Trump would take this step. He’s fulfilling a campaign promise. He’s playing to Christianist fanatics. He’s appeasing big-ticket Republican donors. All of those are part of it to some degree. But each gives Trump too much credit as a tactical or strategic thinker. Mostly I think what’s happening here is Trump is bored, he’s mad, he feels disrespected, and he’s a bigot, and this is an easy way to flip the bird to his critics and make himself the center of world news again while screwing over some Muslims to boot.

What happens now is very much up in the air. Arabs are already protesting in Palestine and elsewhere, and West Bank protests in particular have a habit of turning violent. Arab leaders will be put in a quandry, because while few of them actually give a shit about the Palestinian, their people still do. If they really get angry about this move then that anger could engulf some Arab leaders who are friendly to the US and Israel–Jordan’s King Abdullah, for example, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Mahmoud Abbas was already political toast, but this might be the final straw for him. And as Reuters is reporting that US officials have asked Israeli officials to tone down their reactions to Trump’s announcement in order to try to mitigate the Arab reaction, it’s clear that someone–not the president, clearly, but someone–in the Trump administration knows how stupid this decision was.

But in some respects, as Mitchell Plitnick argues, the real danger is in the long-term:

But there’s also a distinct possibility that after a week or two of protests, and even some violence, by the beginning of 2018, US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has become the new normal.


If it does turn out that way, the Palestinians will have received a very grim message. They will have been told that all the norms on which they have based their commitment to negotiations are nothing but smoke. They will have been told that the United States is their enemy, something a great many believe already, but which has never been so explicitly demonstrated. They will have been told that the international community is either unable or unwilling to do anything to materially assist them when the chips are down. They will have been told that their only hope is to create such pain for Israelis and unrest throughout the region that their needs will have to be addressed.


In short, the United States will have sent the message that Hamas and other armed groups have been right all along about the need to rely on armed struggle. If anything, the message would be that such efforts need to be dramatically increased.

The message to Israel is equally problematic. Whatever the Israelis do–whatever territory they grab, whatever atrocities they commit, however far to the right their politics lurch–Donald Trump has just told them that America will eventually sign off on it. That’s not a message that’s going to increase the chances for peace.

Interestingly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pretty quiet about Trump’s plans, though he finally made a statement after Trump’s announcement. That’s because it’s not really clear that this announcement, right now, is in Netanyahu’s best interests. The Israeli government is busy trying to form tacit alliances with Sunni Arab states across the Middle East to counter what it sees as its one true existential threat: Iran. Depending on how Trump’s move is received in those Sunni countries, those alliance efforts could now be in jeopardy.


The Syrian government delegation has not returned to peace talks in Geneva since walking out on Friday, and on Wednesday France and the United States called on Russia to “deliver” them back to the talks. I think there’s been a consistent Western overestimation of Russia’s ability and desire to body Bashar al-Assad’s government in this way, so I wouldn’t hold my breath here. The Russians are too busy bombing civilians to bother with policing Assad’s approach to the talks.

The Pentagon acknowledged on Wednesday that it has 2000 American soldiers in Syria right now. That’s quite a few more than the 500 it was prepared to acknowledge through yesterday, but it is less than were there as of last week, when some 400 Marines redeployed back to the US.

A new video from Ayman al-Zawahiri appears to confirm that he did not approve of Jabhat al-Nusra’s decision to rebrand and split (formally, at least) from al-Qaeda last year. I still find this unconvincing–the video could easily be intended to convince Western governments that it’s safe to arm Nusra, or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham today, though admittedly there is other evidence beyond the video to suggest that Zawahiri had not been amenable to the split. Brookings’ Daniel Bynam has more on this story.


The big non-Jerusalem news today is that Donald Trump Wrote A Thing:

I have directed officials in my Administration to call the leadership of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to request that they completely allow food, fuel, water, and medicine to reach the Yemeni people who desperately need it. This must be done for humanitarian reasons immediately.

That’s a shockingly unambiguous statement from Trump. And obviously welcome, given Yemen’s ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. It was also buried, some might say deliberately, by the Jerusalem announcement. We’ll see if it has any effect. Earlier today the Saudis were increasing their bombardment of Sanaa, a repercussion of the Saleh killing earlier this week, so it’s unclear how open they’re going to be to a call to deescalate. One might also note that, if Donald Trump really wanted to put an end to Saudi atrocities in Yemen, he could just do it. He is enabling them, after all.

Meanwhile, the Houthis reportedly dispersed a protest in which a group of women were demanding that they turn over Saleh’s body for burial.

Al Jazeera asks what’s next for the Houthis with Saleh gone, and they highlight something that I think has been missed in the outpouring of Saleh obituaries and discussion of what it means for the Saudis’ plans in Yemen. Saleh was Riyadh’s offramp, its maybe last-ditch way out of Yemen. Turning him against the Houthis was a huge step for the Saudis, and his death means they’re back to square one in many respects. On the other hand, while killing Saleh certainly consolidates the Houthis’ power and raises their stature as a military force, it also deprives them of their potential offramp out of the war. The notion that they could reinstate Saleh as Yemen’s ruler under their terms was a long shot, but in Saleh’s absence it’s not clear the Houthis have anybody left who they could credibly put forward as a candidate to run the country. Certainly the Houthi leaders themselves are too divisive for a role like that.


The Intercept’s Avi Asher-Schapiro reports on APCO, an apparently LGBTQ-friendly DC public relations firm that made an extremely LGBTQ-unfriendly business decision a few months ago by going to work for the government of Egypt:

The contract with Egypt was an especially awkward fit for APCO, given the firm’s public association with gay rights causes. Egypt has a long record of persecuting its LGBTQ citizens. Going back to the 1970s, Egyptian courts have interpreted anti-sodomy laws to target those deemed sexually subversive. Soon after APCO signed its deal with Cairo, police in Egypt launched an especially brutal crackdown, rounding up dozens of suspected gay people and subjecting some to forced anal probes.


Meanwhile, APCO quickly assembled an intercontinental 12-person team spanning the U.S., Europe, and Israel to work on behalf of the Egyptian government — including some who had appeared in the #WhyPrideMatters campaign, a former Republican operative, and a former Obama administration official. (Pulchin, Staples, and other APCO employees in the #WhyPrideMatters video are not registered on the Egypt account.)


While Egyptian police rounded up LGBTQ citizens, APCO got to work. The group ignored the crackdown and instead wrote and distributed flattering pamphlets praising the Egyptian government, reached out to influential American think tanks on Egypt’s behalf, tried to persuade American news outlets to write upbeat items about Egypt’s trajectory, and circulated positive news articles about Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — whose public prosecutor, Nabil Sadek, spearheaded the attacks on gay Egyptians.


Finally, to circle back to today’s big news, Slate’s Joshua Keating wonders if the Saudis are really opposed to Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, as they’re saying publicly, or if that’s just a smokescreen:

Saudi leaders will doubtlessly continue to publicly condemn Trump’s move and deny any acquiescence to Israeli claims on Jerusalem. They could hardly do otherwise given public sympathy for the Palestinian cause and how quick their enemies will be to portray them as tools of the Americans and the Zionists. (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said this morning that certain leaders in the region, a clear reference to the Saudis, are “dancing to America’s tune. … Whatever America wants, they’ll work against Islam to accomplish it.”) But it will be worth watching what form this response takes for clues on both Saudi Arabia’s current priorities and how the Trump administration is conducting U.S. foreign policy.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.