The December 6 announcement by Trump of U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his administration’s intention to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to that storied city sparked much consternation and puzzlement, both prospectively and in its aftermath. The consternation, especially among career diplomats and Middle East policy experts, revolved around the likely effects of such a move both for Israeli-Palestinian relations and U.S. relationships with the larger Arab world. Wouldn’t this policy change, by making a unilateral concession to Israel, make even more difficult a two-state solution and unnecessarily inflame Arab world opinion?
The puzzlement stemmed from the timing. Why announce this now? Israel declared Jerusalem as its eternal, united and undivided capital in 1980 and the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring the U.S. to move its embassy to Jerusalem in 1995 but U.S. presidents, including Trump, have signed a waiver of the law every six months for the last two decades justifying their actions in terms of national security concerns. Why didn’t Trump wait another six months or year or announce this policy change six months ago?
The consensus answer to why Trump broke with precedent is that his actions are being driven by domestic political priorities, in particular, the support for a militant Israel evinced by members of his white evangelical base as well as of deep-pocketed rightwing donors such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Johnnie Moore, co-chairman of Trump’s unofficial faith advisory board, said in the aftermath of Trump’s announcement that, “The issue was–to many–second only to concerns about the judiciary among the president’s core evangelical supporters.”
While this macro-scale view of Trump’s domestic political support might explain why he is choosing to break with U.S. foreign policy precedent and risk so much, it does not explain why this break is happening now. For a more nuanced and plausible answer to this latter question, one has to zoom in for a closer look at Trump’s domestic political landscape and ask what Jerusalem might have to do with a closely contested Alabama senate race between Republican Roy Moore, proud fundamentalist and accused pedophile, and Democrat Doug Jones.
For several weeks after the accusations against Moore for sexual abuse and harassment of teenage girls during the time he was in his thirties, he seemed radioactive to the national Republican establishment. Trump changed that with his December 4 early morning tweet endorsing Moore. The very next day, Steve Bannon, Trump’s alt-right alter ego, spoke at a Moore rally in Mobile, Alabama. And on December 6, Trump upended U.S. policy in the Middle East with his Jerusalem announcement.
Is the quick succession of these events a coincidence? Or is it evidence that Bannon continues in his former role as Don Trump’s consigliere? Changing U.S. policy was something Trump had wanted to do from the start. He was evidently persuaded to forego the move six months ago and sign the waiver. However, the unexpected events of late November turned what would have been a shoo-in for the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama into a slogging match with a capable Democratic contender. Might this turn of events have seemed to Trump (if not also to Bannon) the perfect moment to throw some red meat to the base in Alabama and motivate any evangelicals having second thoughts about voting in an accused pedophile to go to the polls on December 12?
Whatever the motivation for Trump’s move on Jerusalem, one thing is certain. This president’s first and (apparently) only priority is to please his base by fulfilling as many of his election season promises as he can. In doing so, he demonstrates that he truly is the President of Red America.
M. Davout (pseudonym) is a professor of political science who teaches in the Deep South.