US President Donald Trump has just made a bad situation worse.
Soon after retweeting an incendiary anti-Muslim video that earned him a rebuke from British Prime Minister Theresa May, and with a Special Counsel focusing on his presidential campaign's suspected links to Russia, Mr Trump has moved to make good on his promise to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital and to shift the US embassy from its current location in Tel Aviv to the contested city. If this was a diversionary tactic, it has been successful. The Muslim world, the European Union, the United Nations secretary-general and Southeast Asia – almost all except Israel are upset at his action.
To be certain, the relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem had been approved by the US Congress as far back as 1995. Also, Trump is not the only US president to declare his intention to move the embassy; former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had made similar pledges. But, once in the White House, those two presidents signed continuous waivers to stall the relocation, aware of the implications that that would have on brittle peace negotiations in the Middle East. This has now been upended by Trump, even if the actual move may take years, and even be reversed by his eventual successor.
What makes Trump's decision dangerous to Middle East peace is the prospect that he may eventually formally drop the US commitment to a two-state policy that would, hopefully, see separate states of Israel and Palestine exist peacefully side by side. For now, he is saying that he is for a two-state solution if that is what the two want. But in February, weeks after taking charge, he had also said ominously that he could back a single-state solution if the disputants agreed since he could live with either one. Many had found cheer in the fact that, once in office, Trump had moderated his disdain for America's longstanding one-China policy. They had believed that, similarly, he might adopt a more nuanced position on the Israel-Palestine dispute. They would have had their worries rekindled by the latest turn of events.
The seeds of the Israeli-Palestine dispute lie deep in the histories of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths. But its modern dimensions came with British withdrawal, the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, and the new state's subsequent occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in 1967. Along with the Kashmir issue, this has been the most intractable conflict of the modern era. It has been hard enough to get the Arab world to countenance a two-state solution that would recognise the right of Israel to exist. As the Jewish state's principal backer, the Americans ought to leave well alone and not complicate an already difficult situation, especially since moves like these contribute to the allure of extremist groups.