When President Donald Trump heads to the Middle East, the world will be primarily watching closely to see if he makes any of his trademark gaffes that set off a cultural land mine in Saudi Arabia or Israel. But the more important question is whether he will use the trip to actually make policy.
The expectation is that, at some point during his visit, Trump will announce the convening of a new Middle East summit. Trump appears to believe in the “outside-in” approach to peace talks, in which Arab states like Saudi Arabia would play a role in trying to encourage and even muscle the Palestinians into negotiating in good faith with Israel at a peace conference. But whether or not that dubious plan is put into action, Trump’s presence in Jerusalem is also being scrutinized for any hint that the United States is prepared to acknowledge his stay at the King David Hotel will be time spent in Israel’s capital.
Though Trump repeatedly pledged during the 2016 campaign he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it hasn’t happened yet. It’s still possible he could do it, perhaps even when he’s there only a day before Israel celebrates Jerusalem Day – which this year marks the 50th anniversary of the city’s reunification during the Six Day War. But few in the know think this is going to happen.
In recent weeks, Trump has been listening to his more mainstream advisers, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis. This has led him to take a more realistic attitude toward NATO and the conflict in Syria. It’s also likely to mean he will heed their warnings that an embassy move would set off riots in the Muslim world rivaling those occurring in reaction to a Danish newspaper publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. That’s a price that not even Trump may be willing to pay to keep a promise.
If so, then those pro-Israel activists who pushed hard to pin down Trump on the embassy issue last year will probably write it off as just a noble effort that failed. But by putting the question of Jerusalem’s status back on the national agenda and then failing, they will have made a mistake that could set back Israel’s cause and boost efforts to re-partition the capital.
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Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.