When one contemplates President Donald Trump’s decision to upend decades of US policy on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, one can’t help imagining Stephen Bannon lurking in the shadows.
When Donald Trump ascended to the US presidency in January this year, there were warnings of the dangers of the world view held by his closest adviser Stephen Bannon. Trump, heavily influenced by Bannon, seemed to have bought into his notion that the Western world is on the cusp of a cleansing war with Islam, which would translate into a violent battle of gargantuan proportions.
Bannon went on to become Trump’s Chief Strategist, but left the White House in August after relentless media coverage of his influence over Trump. In February the cover of Time magazine asked if Bannon was the second most powerful man in the world, with the headline “The Great Manipulator". Two weeks before Bannon’s exit from the White House, a high profile book about Bannon’s influence on Trump came out called the “Devil’s Bargain.”
It was politically astute to remove Bannon from the political limelight given that it was affecting Trump’s popularity, but it did not mean that he lost influence.
Bannon had vowed to remain Trump’s "wingman" even after being ousted, and he has been working on the ground on Trump’s behalf. Since leaving the White House he has taken aim at the Republican establishment for not supporting Trump, and he has campaigned for a candidate for the US Senate endorsed by Trump. Importantly, Bannon has also repeatedly counseled Trump to move the US embassy to Jerusalem in order to keep his campaign promise and energize evangelical voters.
It would seem that Bannon is busy securing a second term for Trump among the religious right and conservative voters. A second term would be the time to implement many of the drastic policies Bannon was unable to push through within the first six months of the administration.
Nothing could be more effective in preventing the erosion of Trump’s base at a time when his popularity is sagging at home than to make good on his campaign promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This would also have been high on the agenda of his close advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt.
Trump desperately needed a foreign policy score that would earn him easy points across his base, especially considering launching another war is something the US can ill-afford at this time. But the move has set the US on a path of confrontation with the Arab world as well as the rest of the international community. The US has never looked so isolated.
Trump’s speech on Wednesday night was met with consternation among many world leaders. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres responded immediately, reiterating that Jerusalem must be the capital of both Israel and Palestine. French President Emmanuel Macron said Trump’s move is in contravention of international law and UN Security Council resolutions.
The Foreign Minister of Qatar said the move is a death sentence for those who seek peace. Jordan’s King Abdullah II said the move would have dangerous repercussions on the stability and security of the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the move will destabilise the Middle East, as has Pope Francis. Erdogan had said that Jerusalem is a red line for Muslims.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reacted saying that the US had abandoned its role in the peace process. Prior to the announcement on Wednesday, Saudi King Salman had warned Trump that moving the embassy to Jerusalem before a permanent peace settlement was a dangerous move as it would inflame the passions of Muslims around the world.
Trump’s announcement comes at a time when the Muslim world has never been more divided. Shia and Sunni majority countries which have coexisted for centuries are now being set against each other in a drive by their leaders for influence and hegemony. But nothing unites the Muslim world more on an emotional level than the Palestinian issue, and Jerusalem lies at the heart of the matter.
What Trump has done is to take a pre-emptive stance on one of the most important and ultimate questions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US will no longer be seen as an honest broker even by those who thought it was. Trump seemed largely disingenuous when he said that the US is not taking sides on any final status issues, given that he just did take sides on perhaps the most pivotal issue of all.
In one fell swoop Trump has succeeded in inflaming tensions not only across the Middle East but also across the world. It has inflamed religious emotions, empowered extremists, and escalated the prospects of a religious war over the Holy Land. At the end of the day, this is likely Steve Bannon’s wet dream – setting the world’s religious forces on a lethal collision course in what could be seen as a fulfilment of his own prophecy.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's foreign editor.