Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital provides the “flashpoint” that Trump has been seeking to save his political agenda and his administration in the face of the ever-encroaching Russia investigation.
The move, which has generated near universal international condemnation, has alt-right, white supremacist, political operative Steve Bannon’s fingerprints all over it.
With Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation advancing, Trump needs some political imperative to counter his growing legal problems, which leave him dangerously exposed to impeachment.
An international crisis, or better yet a war, could be used to justify suspending, or ending, the Russia probe in the name of national security.
It appears North Korea was initially picked as the “tail” that would “wag the dog.” For months, Trump antagonized and goaded North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over his nuclear ambitions.
The president’s saber rattling gave him the opportunity to deflect attention from the Russia probe and unify his base. But it quickly became clear that his North Korea gambit could only be played out so far.
Despite the heated rhetoric, missile launches and military parades, Kim clearly has no intention of launching a suicidal war against the United States. That limited his usefulness as a foil, forcing the administration to look for another flashpoint.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move designed to attract evangelicals and pull away Jewish voters from the Democratic Party.
Nearly every other previous president had done the same, but the issue is inextricably linked to the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. As such, it was viewed as a bargaining chip in negotiations. For that reason, no president in the past 70 years has ever fulfilled the pledge.
In contrast, Trump’s announcement today was unilateral, erasing one critical lever to lasting peace.
Critics charged that he is setting the Middle East on fire with the dramatic policy change, likely uniting 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide against the West.
Manuel Hassassian, the chief Palestinian representative to Britain said today President Trump’s action was tantamount to a declaration of war.
“It means a kiss of death to the two state solution,” Hassassian said in a BBC radio interview.
But there is one immediate beneficiary–Russia.
President Vladimir Putin is already taking credit for ridding Syria of ISIS. Trump’s action not only solidifies Russia’s standing, but drives the Arab world into the Kremlin’s arms, erasing decades of good will carefully cultivated by previous administrations.
Not surprisingly, Russia is acting coolly to the move and warning of accelerated “deterioration” in the region.
Another beneficiary is Iran. It is already lashing out at the decision and positioning itself as the leader of Muslims in the Middle East.
While the fallout internationally is clearly negative, the administration is taking the calculated risk to shore up the administration domestically.
Trump has warned repeatedly about the dangers of domestic Muslim terrorism, but a year into his presidency that threat has yet to materialize, leaving him with egg on his face.
Now, however, he may finally get his wish. Radical Muslims are likely to increase efforts to strike back at the United States, making his warnings a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Expect rhetoric to heat up over the coming months, allowing Trump to create a unifying patriotic frenzy around his administration by turning a perceived common threat into a real one. Anyone who opposes him will be smeared as “liberals,” “communists,” “socialists,” “terrorists,” or simply, unpatriotic.
Trump will also cement the evangelical right as part of his base, despite his record as a misogynistic, sexual predator and unethical business mogul.
Meanwhile, Bannon has been actively courting Jews to join his “revolution,” which includes an improbable coalition of white supremacists and alt-right conspiracy theorists, according to Newsweek.
“We’re leading an insurgency movement against the Republican establishment,” Bannon told a recent meeting of the Zionist Organization of America.
“We’re a nation at war. This war is only going to be won if we bind together and work as partners,” he said.
In that light, it’s a safe to say Bannon urged Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The move drew praise from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other hardliners. But Netanyahu was forced to temper his remarks with renewed warnings about it’s chief adversary, Iran.
In the end, Trump further isolated Israel and could end up leaving the Jewish state twisting slowly in the wind while he scrambles to use rising international tensions to shore up his base at home.
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