There appear to have been two main reasons why President Trump made his statement about Jerusalem on December 6th – both of them related to internal US politics. The first was to win the support of Evangelical Christians in the election of a new senator for Alabama on December 12th. The second was to raise the profile of the Middle East tour by Vice-President Pence planned for December 15th.
Both ended in disaster. The Alabama election was lost and the Vice-President’s tour has had to be curtailed since the Palestinians refused to speak to him, the Mayor of Bethlehem made it clear he would not be welcome and the leader of the Egyptian Christians cancelled his meeting with him. He will not now visit a single church or meet a single Christian on a visit which was billed as being to “bring an end to the persecutions of Christians in the Middle East”.
The Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said on the day of Trump’s announcement that he would not meet Pence as the Americans were no longer qualified to act as “honest broker” in the Middle East peace process.
Pence could hardly complain about this, since he himself had criticised Obama for wanting to act as “honest broker” in the Middle East in 2012. “We certainly want to be honest, but we don’t want to be a broker. A broker doesn’t take sides. But America is on the side of Israel,” Pence said at the time.
The issue of Jerusalem is high on the agenda of Evangelical Christians and there is a lot of evidence that Pence, as an Evangelical, pushed the President to carry out his campaign promise to move the US Embassy and send him on a visit to what he imagined would be a hero’s welcome in Jerusalem.
In June – when every commentator was saying that the campaign promise had been dropped – Pence reassured a meeting of Christians United for Israel that “it is not a question of if, it is only when.” In October he announced the visit and said it would focus on the persecution of Christians. In December he was standing at Trump’s shoulder as he made his declaration.
What really alarmed the Palestinians was that he made so little attempt to hide that his conviction that Jerusalem should belong to Israel was not political but religious. “My passion for Israel springs from my Christian faith,” he told the Christians United for Israel.
“Though Israel was built by human hands, it is impossible not to sense that just beneath its history lies the hand of heaven.”
Interviewed a few days after the declaration by the Christian Broadcasting Network, he said: “If you believe you know His Will, then it shuts the discussion.”
Netanyahu, on the other hand, was elated by the declaration and went to Paris in a buoyant mood for a meeting with President Macron that was intended to focus on Iran. Instead almost the entire meeting was given over to forceful denunciations of the Trump declaration and the illegal settlements.
He went on to a breakfast meeting in Brussels with 23 European foreign ministers in the hope of persuading some of them to follow the American example and move their embassies to Jerusalem.
Instead the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini was able to tell him that none of the EU 27 would follow Trump’s lead, not even the Czech Republic.
“There is full EU unity on this, that the only realistic solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is based on two states with Jerusalem as the capital of both the state of Israel and the state of Palestine.
“The EU and member states will continue to respect the international consensus on Jerusalem until the final status of the holy city is resolved through direct negotiations between the parties.”
The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz focused on Mogherini’s broad grin as she told him: “He can keep his expectations for others — because from the EU member states’ side this move will not come.”
In response to a comment from Netanyahu that peace must be built on ‘reality’, Mogherini verged on sarcasm: “You want three states, four, five, ten? Two states are the only viable and realistic option.”
Mrs May said: “We disagree with the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital before a final status agreement.
“We believe it is unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region. The British Embassy to Israel is based in Tel Aviv and we have no plans to move it.
“In line with relevant Security Council Resolutions, we regard East Jerusalem as part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”