Trump Stirs up the Holy Land: Jerusalem Recognition Revives Crusading Passion

So, President Donald Trump has done what the whole world knew he was going to do; he has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, breaking an international precedent despite warnings from allies and enemies both at home and abroad.

A defiant POTUS declares Jerusalem capital of Israel

The next few years promise a relocation of the American embassy in Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, although how practical that will be on a security footing is something even this blundering administration will need to consider.

Unsurprisingly, the move has caused uproar in the Arab world, with protesters taking to the streets to burn effigies of Trump and global leaders strongly rebuking the incendiary announcement. That the recognition also further destabilises the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process – despite Trump’s claims to the contrary – is somewhat of an aside.

Burning an effigy of President Trump the West Bank city of Nablus

From Pope Urban’s call for crusade in 1095, Jerusalem has served as a battleground – the Holy Grail – of the Abrahamic religions. It changed hands between Christendom and Islam on several occasions, men travelling from far flung places to spill blood in the name of their God.

Crusaders and Seljuk Turks do battle during the First Crusade at Dorylaeum, Anatolia

Of course the Jews have remained present in Jerusalem for most of that time – indeed since the days predating Christianity and Islam as they like to remind us – even if actual power was only bestowed upon them by the victorious parties (mainly the Truman administration) post-WWII.

The monumental decision to create a new religious state – whilst understandable given the centuries of horrific Jewish persecution which had culminated in the Holocaust – has resulted in intermittent warfare ever since, and has added another simmering rivalry to that already existing in the region between the perennially fighting Sunnis and Shiites.

Why has Trump done it? To appease the pro-Israel lobby that voted for him in large numbers during the last election is the obvious answer. In fact, it wouldn’t have been beyond the realms of possibility for the President to have suggested a new Christian crusade to the Holy Land, such is his dedication to his Evangelical base.

Trump went overboard to impress the pro-Israel lobby during the election campaign

Trump is also playing to type, sowing divisions where they already existed. What makes your rivals weaker makes you stronger right?

Some have advocated more pragmatic and sentimental reasons; that Jerusalem is the economic and political capital of Israel, ‘home to Israel’s legislature, its supreme court and the prime minister’ , or that it ‘reflects the reality that [the] city is [the] historic center of [the] Jewish faith’.

Jews at the wailing wall, 1891. Parts of the wall predate Christianity and Islam

Either way, it takes little to incense the Arabs and whilst Trump’s move isn’t particularly beneficial to the US – who Israel will continue to rely upon for years to come no matter how strained relations are – it is unlikely to create major change or crisis.

There are arguments that it will encourage further ‘illegal’ Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, though this is likely to continue regardless. Indeed, Trump has left the door open for East Jerusalem to become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The claim that the move has irrevocably destroyed the potential for a two-state solution, however, is ridiculous. This is, and has been since Israel’s inception, a distant dream. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are willing to make the concessions to make it happen, no matter what international diplomacy can achieve.

Whatever Trump’s rhetoric and actions, the Holy Land will continue to inspire and divide, to inflame passion and hatred, to breed reconciliation and war. The world will watch on as the cycle continues, whilst the militant proxies of the region’s powers seek to gain the smallest of footholds wherever they can. They are left to take up the crusading mantle of the past.

3,000 years on the Jews are entrenched in Israel and Jerusalem is beyond sacred to them. That it is to many Muslims and Christians, too, will not change the geopolitical status quo.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre – sacred to Christians
Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount – sacred to Muslims

The bloodshed of the infidel will continue to stain the holiest of monuments, memories of crusade and defiance infusing energy into every brick that help to make Jerusalem one of the most captivating cities to visit.

What President Trump says will never change this.

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Qatar Steps out of the Shadows to Take Centre Stage: a new power in the Middle East

Qatar has become increasingly assertive in its attempts to dictate affairs in the Middle East. Not one of the region’s historical powerhouses, Qatar has sought to use its economic clout and the media resources at its disposal to play a leading diplomatic role in several areas of political importance.

Qatar is seeking to match its economic power with political clout
Qatar is seeking to match its economic power with political clout

The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas has intensified security concerns in the region. A dispute often managed and mediated by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, however, now partly rests on the negotiating skills of the Qataris. Having alienated Hamas over its treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s new government has been supplanted by Qatar at the mediation table. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has faced-off against Hamas by proxy in Syria and has also been unable to bring a swift end to the deadly violence in Gaza.

Qatar is ruled by the House of Thani which has controlled the peninsula since the mid-19th century. This was at the time of the ‘Great Game’, when British and Russian imperialists sought decisive influence over Central Asia and the Middle East. It was the ‘British Raj’, based in India, that came to exert a dominant influence over the Persian Gulf creating a maritime truce amongst its states that gave Britain a crucial economic advantage.

In 1971, David Holden wrote:

There is little doubt that as long as the current régimes in Bahrein, Qatar and the seven Trucial States remain in power they will continue to follow the habits of the past 150 years and look to Britain for help and advice, even if direct military protection is denied them.

Qatar only achieved independence in 1971 after years of British dominance in the Persian Gulf
Qatar only achieved independence in 1971 after years of British dominance in the Persian Gulf

Qatar was seen as trapped in Britain’s shadow, even in the post-colonial world. Such a theory has not been borne out. As early as 1957 Qatar had provided a refuge for Yasser Arafat and other leaders of the burgeoning Fatah movement after an agreement between General Nasser of Egypt and the UN to expel guerrilla groups from the Gaza Strip (Rouleau, 1975).

As the country’s oil wealth grew rapidly in the second half of the 20th century, Qatar began to exert greater influence in regional affairs. Any notions that it may remain in the British, or even Saudi, shadow, failed to materialise. 

Offshore oil fields are Qatar's lifeblood
Offshore oil fields are Qatar’s lifeblood

The founding of Al Jazeera in 1996 further strengthened the regional and international prowess of Qatar. Funded by the Thani Emirs, it has become the Arabic mouthpiece across the globe, with news disseminated to suit the priorities of Qatar’s rulers.

Support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other popular Islamist movements in the Middle East has helped Qatar’s rulers dismiss any accusations of arrogant aloofness and provided an important bargaining chip in negotiating on behalf of Hamas. Whether Qatar has the assertiveness to use the tools at its disposal remains to be seen.

To think, however, that a formerly British-Saudi dependent sheikhdom on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula could come to exert such influence in a war-torn region through the use of resources, a powerful media outlet and aid to populist Islamist groups is quite staggering.

Whether this influence will be used for the common good or, as Qatar’s neighbours accuse, national gain, may soon be known.

Sources

Holden, D. ‘The Persian Gulf: After the British Raj’, Foreign Affairs (July 1971)

Rouleau, E. ‘The Palestinian Quest’, Foreign Affairs (January 1975)

Saab, B.Y. ‘The Dishonest Broker: Why Qatar’s Peacemaking Shouldn’t be Trusted’, Foreign Affairs (July 30, 2014)