December 14, 2017 — Jerusalem, Israel
By Col. (Ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman
As might have been expected, President Trump's short speech on December 6 changing the U.S. stance on the status of Jerusalem, albeit in line with Congressional legislation dating back to 1995, unleashed a firestorm of excited verbiage both pro and con, much of it overblown and at times absurd. Despite U.S. diplomatic entreaties to tone down the level of celebratory statements, some Israelis compared it with the Declarations of Cyrus and of Balfour – placing the president on a fairly high pedestal. But Cyrus and Balfour both committed their respective empires, the Persian and the British, to projects creating a new reality on the ground; whereas Trump, to use his own language, simply recognized an existing fact that has been ignored for too long.
Rhetoric on the other side was even more excitable and unbalanced, including charges that the president’s decision was a sign of idiocy, even "a crime against humanity.” Particularly rich was the argument, put forward by the Mufti of Jerusalem and other Palestinian spokesmen, that Trump has "violated" the UNESCO resolution that determined, earlier this year, that Jews have nothing to do with Jerusalem, a place holy to Muslims and Christians. Hamas called for a "Third Intifada,” Turkish President Erdogan threatened to cut off relations with Israel, and dire predictions were heard that this would play into the hands of terrorists and lead to violence—as if none has been perpetrated by Islamist radicals until now. One may be forgiven for taking note, once again, of how patently childish behavior has become an accepted norm when coming from some of our neighbors – a bad case of the so-called "racism of reduced expectations."
On the ground, tensions did rise. Large-scale demonstrations were launched in Palestinian cities, which in some cases turned into an effort to reach Israeli positions and confront the IDF. In the PA areas, this led to dozens of wounded but no loss of life, perhaps because the Palestinian Security Forces played a restraining role behind the scenes. Along the Gaza border, two Palestinians died in such clashes. A few rockets were fired into Israel, two landing inside Sderot (one fell in a kindergarten on Shabbat, when nobody was there). IAF raids in retaliation claimed the lives of two Hamas activists and badly wounded several civilians, including a toddler. Inside Israel, a few demonstrators in Wadi 'Ara, the densely populated Arab area along Route 65 to the north, turned violent and stoned a bus, generating an intemperate – and possibly illegal – call by Israel's Minister of Defense, Avigdor Liberman, to boycott the entire area and hand it over to Ramallah's rule. Sporadic shooting incidents were recorded in the West Bank. On December 10, a guard in the central bus station in Jerusalem was knifed by a Palestinian.
A good number of Israelis, particularly on the left, raised questions over the wisdom of Trump's symbolic act, which carried with it such violent consequences. On the other hand, if compared with what was feared might happen (let alone, with Hamas leader in Gaza Isma'il Haniyeh's inflammatory speeches), the consequences so far have been almost minimal. Most significantly, Jerusalem stayed quiet after the Friday prayers, proving the wisdom of the police decision not to limit the right of attendance on the Temple Mount. Abbas directed his energies to the diplomatic front, scoring a partial achievement when most members of the UN Security Council denounced or at least criticized the U.S. action. Reading between the lines of its statements, even Hamas seemed to imply that the violence so far had already "delivered the message," and by implication, may no longer be necessary as a political tool. The discovery and destruction of yet another Gaza tunnel penetrating inside Israel indicated that the technology of prevention is now more mature, and may have further diminished Hamas's appetite for risking another round of fighting.
In the Arab and Muslim world, despite some noisy demonstrations and clashes with police near U.S. Embassies, the reaction so far has been confined to fiery rhetoric. The call by the Lebanese foreign minister (President Michel Aoun's son-in-law, Basil Jibran) for economic sanctions on the U.S. has more to do with countering American financial measures against his Hezbollah allies than with the Jerusalem issue. From the safety of his bunker, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah called on the Palestinians to sacrifice their lives. America's friends were highly critical – one Saudi paper took the unique step of printing a headline in Hebrew, "No Peace – Jerusalem is Palestinian" (perhaps in response to popular Israeli papers running banners in English, thanking Trump). No active measures were taken, however – not surprising, in a week when Saudi attention was focused on the brutal assassination of the former president of Yemen, 'Ali 'Abdallah Saleh, just as he was about to turn his back on his Houthi allies and defect to the Saudi camp. His elimination served notice, once again, that Iran and her allies are playing for keeps, a far more pressing matter for the Saudis and their friends than the Jerusalem issue.
The difference between violent language and more sober reactions was all the more pronounced at the emergency summit of the OIC in Turkey. There was nothing surprising about Erdogan's language. A few days earlier, in a speech to his party loyalists at Sivas, he added to the verbal fireworks, describing Israel as a "terrorist state" that "murders children." Netanyahu, in Paris for a meeting with French President Macron (and on his way to Brussels to address the EU Foreign Ministers), responded in kind, retorting that he would take no lectures from a man who jails journalists and bombs the Kurds in his own country. Still, the spiraling rhetoric may actually serve to cover Erdogan's retreat from the threat to cut off relations: in reaction to Netanyahu's reaction, his spokesman explained that Turkey intended to continue to be there for the Palestinians and their needs. This would be rendered impossible if Turkey actually broke relations with Israel. Moreover, experience has indicated that Erdogan always stops short of doing anything that might harm important economic interests, which is what shore up popular support for his party, the AKP. Haifa, after all, is now Turkey's port of trade with Jordan and much of the Arab world—not to mention billions of dollars in exports to Israel herself. In the end, no practical measures emerged from the summit, and Erdogan could hardly hide his anger at the Arab states’ tepid responses.
The one practical impact of the eruption, so far, has thus been the Palestinian determination to dismiss the U.S. as an honest broker and their refusal to meet with Vice President Pence during his scheduled visit in the region. Trump's implicit and explicit olive branches – the reference to a two-state solution, the insistence that borders, even in Jerusalem, are negotiable, and the use of the term al-haram al-Sharif – were left hanging in the air. This may indeed lead to a prolonged hiatus in the efforts to work out and refine a blueprint for negotiations and the possible outlines of the "deal of the century" that Trump has been hoping for.
And yet even this is uncertain. During Netanyahu's visit in Paris, his host saw fit to clarify that France will not be stepping forward (as the Palestinians have openly asked Europeans to do) to offer an alternative plan or a non-American avenue of mediation. The Palestinians, in other words, have no alternatives to latch on to. They have already indicated, in response, that while an exclusive U.S. role is now unacceptable to them, it could resume in the guise of a quartet initiative (alongside the EU, Russia and the UN) – a workable ladder with which to climb down from a tree on which they are beginning to feel rather lonelier than they expected. Abbas's threat at the OIC to bring the issue of recognition of a Palestinian state back to the UN Security Council is little more than an empty exercise: the Trump Administration will surely not recoil from casting a veto if need be.
What, then, is the ultimate benefit derived from Trump's largely symbolic act, which has yet to even produce even a change in the State Department's rules on registration for Israelis born in Jerusalem? The fact is that it did finally break the mold cast by U.N. Security Council 2334, pushed through with the tacit support of the Obama Administration (which abstained instead of using the veto) and against the best efforts of Trump's incoming team. The notion of a solution imposed on Israel – as an alternative to an ugly but implementable compromise reached at the negotiating table – has been dealt a blow, perhaps a decisive one. The essence of Trump's message, restoring the spirit if not the letter of President Bush’s letter of April 14, 2004, is that Israel's stance carries weight in determining the parameters of the permanent status agreement. The sooner the Palestinian side adjusts – as some key Arab players have done already – the better the chances of a return to a course of progress once the dust has settled.
Eran Lerman is the former deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. Prior to that, he served as director of AJC Jerusalem.