Most Arab countries won’t care much about Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which might seem counterintuitive. The official announcement, though, comes at an important and peculiar time, when Arab regimes—particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt—find themselves more aligned than ever with Israel on regional priorities. They all share, along with the Trump administration, a near obsession with Iran as the source of the region’s evils; a dislike, and even hatred, of the Muslim Brotherhood; and an opposition to the intent and legacy of the Arab Spring.
The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has developed a close relationship with Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner (who recently outlined the administration’s Middle East vision at my institution, Brookings). If Saudi officials, including the crown prince himself, were particularly concerned with Jerusalem’s status, they would presumably have used their privileged status as a top Trump ally and lobbied the administration to hold off on such a needlessly toxic move. As my colleague Shibley Telhami argues, there was little compelling reason, in either foreign policy or domestic political terms, for Trump to do this. This is a gratuitous announcement, if there ever was one, and it’s unlikely Trump would have followed through if the Saudis had drawn something resembling a red line, so to speak.
It appears that the Saudi regime may have done the opposite. As The New York Times reported:
According to Palestinian, Arab and European officials who have heard Mr. Abbas’s version of the conversation, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented a plan that would be more tilted toward the Israelis than any ever embraced by the American government.
Falling short of even what previous Israeli leaders Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert had considered, the Saudi proposal, by the Times’s account, would have asked Palestinians to accept limited sovereignty in the West Bank and forfeit claims on Jerusalem. Whether or not the Saudi crown prince presented this “plan” out of sincerity or as a gambit to lower the bar and pressure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to make concessions is almost beside the point. That these ideas were even so much as floated suggests a Saudi regime increasingly close to both Israel as well as the Trump administration. (The Saudi government denied any changes in its position on Jerusalem in an official statement.)
These are odd positions for the Saudi leadership to be in. As the birthplace of Islam and custodian of the faith’s two holiest sites, Saudi Arabia has long presented itself as a protector and representative of Muslims worldwide. Yet it now finds itself in close embrace with the most anti-Muslim administration in U.S. history and stands as one of the few countries genuinely enthusiastic about Trump’s foreign-policy agenda.
Why would an Islamic state—one still governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law—be so seemingly at ease with such an openly Islamophobic government? Wouldn’t Trump’s incitement against Muslims in early morning tweets give them pause? Thinking as much would make the mistake of assuming that Muslim-majority countries, even ones historically associated with Islam, are in any real sense “pro-Muslim.” They aren’t. In effect if not in intent, few are as indifferent to Muslim life as Arab countries are. It may be hard for Arabs to admit, but Israel, for all the suffering it has inflicted on the Palestinian territories, has proven—in relative terms—more respectful of Muslim life than most Arab regimes. Nothing Israel has done, or probably could do, can compare to the ongoing Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which has been roundly condemned as a moral and humanitarian catastrophe of unusual proportions.
No one, then, should fall under the illusion that declaring Jerusalem Israel’s capital will harm America’s alliances with most, or even many, Arab nations (Jordan being a notable exception). The fact that most Arab countries are autocracies, though, complicates the matter, since unelected, unaccountable regimes do not generally reflect popular sentiment, particularly when it comes to the Palestinian conflict. Arab leaders have been content to use Palestine and Palestinians for rhetorical effect and to absorb or deflect popular anger over their own failures and missteps. But for Arab populations, Palestine still matters, even if primarily on a symbolic level (and if we’ve learned anything in recent years, it’s that symbols matter).
To be sure, Arabs are preoccupied with their own domestic problems, and the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been overstated. But the status of Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest site, has a way of resonating and sharpening divides. Why even test the proposition? Trump’s move on Jerusalem isn’t the end of the world or even the end of the peace process—which has been a fiction for some time now—but why give extremists or even non-extremists another way to stoke anti-American sentiment? Why further undermine an already undermined Palestinian Authority? If only there were Arab governments that were confident, cared about actual Muslims, and could reflect and convey the frustration that no doubt many Arabs will be feeling in the days and weeks ahead. That Arab world, as we’ve been reminded this week, does not exist.