Jerusalem: The world's most contested capital

Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will likely be followed by more countries whose drive to block Islamism may be greater than their faith in an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Trump makes announcement about Jerusalem (Reuters)
IT’S BEEN 26 centuries, yet the biblical exiles’ vow by the rivers of Babylon – that Jerusalem will never be forgotten – has just been fulfilled to a universal extent of which even they never dreamt.
America, Europe, the rest of the superpowers and also the UN, not to mention the Palestinians and the rest of the Arabs along with the Jewish people and, needless to say, the State of Israel – all behaved for a moment as if the quaint city on the Judean hilltops vitally links the entire world.
Though warned that the issue with which he was tinkering was fraught with geopolitical dynamite and religious radioactivity, US President Donald Trump crossed the diplomatic Rubicon on December 6, by formally declaring Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish state, and ordering preparations for the American Embassy’s migration to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
Diplomatic commotion and spontaneous violence followed immediately while a thicket of political fog descended on an already disoriented, war-torn Middle East.
“These condemned and unacceptable measures are a deliberate undermining of all efforts exerted to achieve peace,” said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose conclusion from Trump’s move was that the US has chosen to abandon its time-honored role as the Middle East conflict’s mediator.
To Abbas’s right, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Trump’s move reflected “contempt for Palestinian feelings and holy sites,” and “will not change the facts of history.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani concurred, saying Trump has shown disrespect for the Palestinian people’s “legitimate rights.” And Turkish President Reçep Erdoğan, while repeating his familiar blood libels against Israel, called Trump “a partner in bloodshed.”
To Abbas’s left, the pro-American Saudi Arabia’s royal court said in a formal statement that it “regretted” what it called an “unjustified and irresponsible” decision, a variation on the Arab League’s theme of “dangerous and unacceptable” and a “flagrant attack on a political solution” to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
While such Middle Eastern critics challenged the American move’s substance, America’s fellow superpowers questioned its wisdom, warning that its impact might be harsh.
“All parties should do more for the peace and tranquility of the region,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said of Trump’s statement which, according to Beijing, “could sharpen regional conflict.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said pretty much the same thing, albeit less diplomatically, arguing that Trump’s move “defies common sense.”
Western Europe was not much more polite. Addressing a joint press conference where they arrived after meeting at the Elysée, President Emmanuel Macron warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the decision is dangerous to peace, defied international law, and would cause “instability.”
To Macron’s west, British Prime Minister Theresa May said Trump’s move was “unhelpful for peace prospects,” while to Macron’s east, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Berlin could not support Washington’s move “because the status of Jerusalem is to be resolved in the framework of a two-state solution.”
Ten days on, the diplomatic commotion Trump stirred approached the United Nations’ Security Council, whose 15 members were handed a draft resolution that denied the declaration’s legal consequences and also called on Washington to rescind its move. Coupled with the UN General Assembly’s subsequent condemnation of Trump’s move by a majority of 128-9 with 29 abstentions and 21 absentees – this is about as far as the diplomatic backlash is likely to reach.
ALL KNEW that the Security Council would go through the motions of hearing several anti-American and anti-Israeli speeches and then formally present the anti-Trump draft only to watch it be summarily torpedoed by an American veto.
That is what happened on December 18, when the Council’s 14 non-American members tabled a resolution that said “any decisions and actions, which purport to have altered the character, status or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect, are null and void and must be rescinded.”
US Ambassador Nikki Haley then duly vetoed the draft resolution, adding that Washington saw in it “an insult” that “won’t be forgotten.”
Some of those who opposed the move did so mainly for the record. Egypt, for instance, drafted the anti-American resolution because President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was actually eager to remove the issue from the international community’s agenda. Sponsoring the non-starter resolution allowed him to save face toward the Palestinians.
The diplomatic fallout from the American move will indeed remain limited, even after considering some countries’ hopes to use it to diminish Washington’s status as the Middle East’s peace broker.
This has been voiced by Abbas, who reportedly plans to seek Washington’s replacement by the UN Security Council as the mediator between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. That is, of course, a nonstarter that Israel would dismiss outright as a negotiator, and the US would veto as a Security Council member.
More significantly, Russia, which already is the main mediator in the Syrian civil war, is following closely the growing distrust between Ramallah and Washington. This is what its deputy ambassador to the UN, Vladimir Safronkov, echoed when he said Moscow was ready to host Israel-Palestinian talks as “an honest mediator.”
Yet the Russian quest to replace the US would also need Israel’s approval, and in all likelihood fail to obtain it, especially at a time when the White House is as pro-Israel as it currently is.
The same goes for China, which was preparing to host in Beijing, two weeks after Trump’s statement, a delegation of Palestinian officials and members of the Israeli opposition.
The joint delegation’s scheduled meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi indicated that Beijing is seeking ways to become an actor in the Mideast conflict, a role that would be a natural extension of the Asian giant’s intensifying economic activity in the region, especially in Israel.
Then again, China’s role as Middle Eastern mediator, even if it is to transpire, will take years to mature.
In all, the American move’s impact will be initially judged not by what happens in far-flung capitals, but by what happens, or doesn’t happen, down in the field, where it sparked violence with no delay.
VIOLENCE ERUPTED on three levels: rioting, rocketing, and assaults on individuals.
Two knifings within less than 10 days of the announcement, one in Jerusalem the other in the West Bank, seem for now to be isolated incidents that do not represent an organized terror campaign.
The attacks’ two victims, a civilian guard in the capital’s central bus station and a Border Policeman on duty outside Ramallah, were injured, the former severely and the latter moderately. The Jerusalem assailant, who came from Nablus, was wrestled down and arrested at the scene, and the other, who came from the Hebron area, was killed on the spot.
While these attacks were isolated, rioting in east Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza involved thousands.
Consequent clashes with IDF troops resulted, according to Palestinian reports, in six fatalities, four in disturbances along the Gaza border fence, and two in the West Bank, as soldiers fired at rioters who approached them. Dozens were injured. Israeli Arabs also joined the protests, marching peacefully in several northern towns, like Sakhnin in the Lower Galilee.
Meanwhile, Gaza began spewing rockets toward Ashkelon and Sderot.
Within two weeks of the announcement some 30 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, triggering retaliatory strikes by the Israel Air Force that targeted Hamas installations, outposts, and warehouses within the Strip.
Some of the Gazan rockets failed to cross the border, some were intercepted by Iron Dome rockets, and some fell harmlessly in empty fields, until a rocket fired December 16 hit a house in an unspecified Israeli community opposite Gaza (the IDF does not specify such a target’s location because that would help the rocket launchers refine their accuracy.)
THE INHABITANTS escaped harm thanks to the local siren, whose sound made them run for cover in the nearby bomb shelter. However, the damage to the family’s house was the first such scene since the seven- week fighting in Gaza during summer 2014.
The question all this raises is what kind of violence might Israel be in for, following Trump’s announcement? While no one, even the Palestinians, can answer this question reliably, several circumstances suggest that the violence will be relatively limited.
First, today’s Arab world has little patience for renewed Palestinian-Israeli violence. Egypt is busy fighting economic stagnation and an Islamist insurgency; Saudi Arabia is busy fighting an Iranian-backed revolt in its Yemeni backyard; Jordan is busy containing Syrian refugees and Islamist militias on both sides of its northern border; and five other Arab countries are busy each with its own sectarian strife.
Secondly, the timing of Trump’s announcement is inconvenient for the Palestinian leadership, from both its ends: For the Palestinian Authority, violence right now might nip in the bud the restoration of its rule over Gaza, in line with its new truce with Hamas; and for Hamas, violence at this time might restore its role as Gaza’s civilian ruler, a task it has proven unable to fulfill, and which it no longer wants.
This is the backdrop for Hamas’s reported arrests of warriors who launched rockets into Israel on behalf of Salafi organizations.
According to Haaretz, Hamas sent messages to Israel through Egypt that it does not want to escalate the violence. The accuracy of that report will only be established in the upcoming weeks, but even now, two weeks since Trump’s statement, the violence that it triggered seems limited, controlled, and waning.
Yet even if the violence does not resurge, and even if it subsides altogether, the question will still remain: what drove Trump, and where does it leave the conflict’s parties?
CYNICS WILL say that Trump’s motivation was personal; that he wanted to distract attention from his personal scandals. Whatever such speculation’s validity, Trump’s move reflects a broader strategic thought, as presented in the national security speech he delivered December 18 at Washington’s Ronald Reagan International Trade Center.
In his speech, Trump effectively parted with the global idealism shared by all post- Cold War US presidents, including George W. Bush, who believed that the US and could and should spread its ideals around the world. Trump now abandoned this course, deriding his predecessors for having “engaged in nation-building abroad, while they failed to build up and replenish our nation at home.”
One of those nation-building efforts focused on the prospective Palestinian state, a cause which in Trump’s book should now be relegated to the backburner – not because it is just or unjust, but because it does not directly serve, and in fact might hamper, American interests.
This “America First” mindset is the kind of us-and-them attitude with which Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon viewed the world – “us” being those who serve American interests and follow its global lead, and “them” being America’s declared enemies: last century they were the communists, this century they are the Islamists in all their versions, along with North Korea.
The Jerusalem statement is but part of this new mapping, which leaves the Palestinians squarely on the wrong side of the American president’s globe.
An American presidency that, in Trump’s words, is out to “fight radical Islamist ideology and terrorist financing,” views with contempt a Palestinian presidency that allocates monthly salaries to terrorists’ families and negotiates pacts with Hamas, even while it waltzes with the same Iran that Trump now paints as a major American enemy.
This is the context in which Trump made the unilateral move that would have been irrelevant had the Palestinians signed the US-brokered final-status deals they were offered in 2000 and 2008.
In this regard, Trump’s announcement is a major Palestinian failure.
In itself, Jerusalem’s recognition as Israel’s capital is neither radical nor novel. Russia, of all countries, preceded the US by 8 months in this, having said in an April 6 statement concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “We view West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”
Indeed, the Czech Republic’s decision to follow Trump’s lead and also recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will sooner or later be joined by others. What is more is that Trump’s statement left open the prospect of a Palestinian capital ending up in the city’s Arab part.
Indeed, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales announced on December 24 that he had given instructions to move his country’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The Czech recognition will likely be joined in due course by other Central European countries, like Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, by veteran democracies such as Italy and Australia, and by African countries like Kenya and South Sudan.
Such countries, like Trump, will see the Jerusalem issue not in the context of the Mideast conflict, but as part of their ongoing war with Islamism.
The setback for the Palestinians is therefore less in Trump’s move, and more in its context.
What could have happened last decade in the context of peace, and as part of the establishment of a Palestinian state, is now happening without a Palestinian state, and in the context of the international war on the Islamist tiger, while it carries its Palestinian riders into the sunset.