Nearly two years ago, Donald Trump was booed by a group of influential Jewish Republicans when he punted a question about whether he backed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Appearing before a forum organised by the Republican Jewish Coalition, an influential lobbying group largely funded by Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, Trump was asked a delicate, but predictable, diplomatic question: did he believe Jerusalem was the undivided capital of Israel? The presidential candidate, who prided himself on candour and straight talk, dodged. “You know what I want to do? I want to wait until I meet with Bibi,” Trump said, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A smattering of boos erupted from the audience.
On Wednesday, Trump became the first sitting US president to take that position, capping a steady, if unlikely, evolution for a billionaire who had no experience dealing with the perilous politics of the Middle East when he first launched his presidential bid. The decision reflects the influence of powerful allies in Trump’s inner circle, including Vice-President Mike Pence and Adelson, men determined to coach Trump on the issue and its importance to conservative Jews and evangelical Christians.
Trump was drawn to the idea of breaking with that presidential precedent, seeing the chance to issue an order that both his predecessor Barack Obama, a frequent Trump target, and previous Republican presidents were reluctant to issue, according to two advisers familiar with the president’s thinking.
Administration officials are braced for blowback. But Trump’s gambit also appeared to be driven less by diplomatic strategy and more by the wish to fulfill a campaign promise.
As Trump’s candidacy took off, he began courting pro-Israel US Jews and evangelical Christians. In 2016, Trump indeed vowed to recognise Israel’s claim to Jerusalem and to move the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv, aligning himself with most mainstream Republican presidential hopefuls.
After taking office, Steve Bannon, his former chief strategist, repeatedly counselled the president to take the step as a means of holding to his campaign promise and energising evangelical voters. Conservative faith leaders, like Faith & Freedom founder Ralph Reed, also pushed the cause to senior aides.