Right-wingers in Jerusalem are ecstatic; Palestinian leaders are apoplectic. Welcome to a new era of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
- By Neri ZilberNeri Zilber is a journalist and researcher on Middle East politics and culture. He was, most recently, a visiting scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
TEL AVIV, Israel, and RAMALLAH, West Bank — “We are entering a new era,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed last month, the day after the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. “Just as President-elect [Donald] Trump said … it will happen much sooner than you think. In the new era there is a much higher price for those who try to harm Israel, and that price will be exacted not only by the U.S., but by Israel as well.”
Israelis and Palestinians are already preparing for this new era, and drawing battle lines against their foes.
The Israeli government, as Netanyahu made clear, views the new U.S. administration as a shield against the rest of the world, and “anti-Israel” measures like the Security Council resolution the Obama administration allowed to pass last month. Palestinian leaders find themselves in the diametrically opposite position: They are now furiously trying to mobilize the rest of the world as a bulwark against the incoming Trump administration and the possibility it breaks from long-standing U.S. polices, first among them moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The U.S. president-elect has called brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace the “ultimate deal.” Yet the only diplomatic activity taking place right now is focused not on any positive steps toward a two-state solution, but managing the impending rise of Trump.
The Netanyahu government’s optimism appears to be well-founded. In the immediate aftermath of the U.S. election, Trump invited the Israeli premier to the White House “at the first opportunity,” adding for good measure that the two leaders have known each other for years. Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is a long-standing supporter of West Bank settlements, even heading the U.S. fundraising arm for one prominent settlement. Jared Kushner, the president-elect’s son-in-law and senior advisor, is also known for his pro-Israel activism, with his family’s foundation donating to various West Bank settlements.
Coming on the heels of the U.N. Security Council resolution and Secretary of State John Kerry’s subsequent speech excoriating Israel for its settlement project, Trump tweeted that things will be “very different” when he officially takes office, imploring Israel to “Stay Strong … January 20th is fast approaching!” Settler leaders are even set to attend Trump’s inauguration.
Then there’s the matter of the location of the U.S. Embassy. Like presidential candidates Bill Clinton and George W. Bush before him, Trump promised on the campaign trail to move the embassy to Jerusalem. But the international community, including the United States, doesn’t recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and deems the future disposition of the capital subject to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
These past administrations, to be sure, reneged on their campaign promises about the U.S. Embassy. This time, however, might be different: Trump’s advisors have not diluted the claim, with one top aide stating that it was still “a big priority” for the president-elect. Friedman, on the announcement of his appointment, also claimed he would be taking up his post from “the U.S. Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.” With such clear expressions of unconditional support, it’s not a surprise that in a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 69 percent of Jewish Israelis expect Trump to have a positive attitude toward the country. Fifty-seven percent of Jewish Israelis, by comparison, viewed the outgoing Obama administration’s attitude as unfriendly.
The Israeli Right is particularly ecstatic. In the words of one prominent lawmaker, Trump’s election is nothing less than a “miracle” and a herald to the coming of the Messiah. On the precise issues that the international community so severely censured Israel — settlement construction and the moribund peace process — right-wing politicians now see opportunity. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, declared that with Trump’s election, “the era of a Palestinian state is over” and that it was now time to begin annexing settlements in the West Bank (sentiments that, to be fair, the prime minister and his confidants have not yet embraced).
Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon made the threat first articulated by Netanyahu more explicit. “Perceptions,” he told Israel Army Radio late last month, “are important” for the other Security Council members. Recent comments by both the British prime minister and Australian foreign minister, blasting Kerry’s speech and the Security Council resolution, respectively, have proved Danon’s point. If foreign leaders want good relations with the new U.S. administration, the path runs through Israel.
While the first test of the Trump administration’s intentions will come with respect to Jerusalem, Israeli intelligence assessments peg the adjoining West Bank as the most unstable arena over the coming year. The upsurge in violence in both Jerusalem and the West Bank that began in late 2015 has only recently abated, and the political, economic, and social frustrations that sparked the unrest are still in place. As has happened numerous times, Jerusalem could act as the flint to the West Bank’s steel.
Yet security officials are extremely guarded when pressed on the potential repercussions of the U.S. Embassy move. As one senior Israeli military officer put it to Foreign Policy, “You don’t need me to tell you that the Palestinians won’t like it.”
The Palestinian Authority, to put it mildly, doesn’t like what may prove to be Trump’s opening gambit in the Middle East. But officials in Ramallah were extremely slow to realize that the incoming U.S. administration represented a sea change from those that have come before.
“[The Palestinians] were shocked to hear that the new administration was serious [about Jerusalem],” Khalil Shikaki, director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, recently told Foreign Policy. “They underestimated the potential for change with the new administration — this is their ‘awakening’ and they are not prepared.”
This was partially a result, perhaps, to a naïve faith in the institutional inertia of U.S. foreign policymaking. But it was also due to the fact that, according to sources in both Ramallah and Washington, there had been as of last week no direct contact between the Palestinians and the Trump transition. The only link President Mahmoud Abbas appears to have with the Trump administration is an American hedge fund manager whose claim to power is that he sits next to Kushner in an Upper East Side synagogue The Palestinians have been desperately trying to make up for lost time, launching a diplomatic outreach effort meant to mobilize the rest of the world and raise the political price for Trump if he decides to move the embassy. Abbas sent letters last week to more than a dozen world leaders, including Trump, warning of the “disastrous impact on the peace process, on the two-state solution and on the stability and security of the entire region” of such a step. The Palestinian president also met with Pope Francis at the Vatican and dispatched his senior aide, Saeb Erekat, to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Erekat and other top officials have also in recent days reiterated the threat of revoking Palestinian recognition of Israel, a move enshrined in 1993 at the start of the Oslo Peace Process.
“If Mr. Trump wants to translate his campaign propaganda into actions, no one should expect the Palestinians to surrender,” Jibril Rajoub, a senior member of Abbas’s Fatah Party, told Foreign Policy late last week. “We have to mobilize the whole world to react and exert pressure because … this will cause harm to regional stability, global peace, and American interests.” Rajoub outlined a diplomatic strategy that aims to harness the full influence of the “Arab League, Islamic countries, the nonaligned countries, European Union countries, and the [U.N.] Security Council.”
This effort has already borne some fruit, with one Jordanian minister saying this month that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem was a “red line” for the Hashemite Kingdom that could “inflame the Islamic and Arab streets.” Yet Arab unity, always a fickle prospect, is never a given — even on issues as emotionally resonant as Jerusalem and the Palestinian question. Officials in Ramallah recall how Egypt balked at the Security Council last month, rescinding its draft resolution condemning Israeli settlements at the eleventh hour, reportedly due to pressure from Israel and the Trump camp. (Egypt eventually voted for the resolution after it was resubmitted by other Security Council members.)
“It’s not going to be easy [for Abbas] to mobilize Arab support like he would like,” Shikaki said. “They have interests, [and while] Jerusalem is of course one of the main common interests it’s an open question whether they’ll be willing to have all the other issues held hostage by this one.”
Palestinian officials like to point out that the Middle East, already in crisis, can ill afford another “explosion.” For this very reason, however, Arab states may have other, more pressing concerns — like Iran’s growing regional influence — where Israel and the Trump administration could play pivotal roles. None other than Abbas raised the specter of an Arab sellout last fall, railing against undue foreign interests in Palestinian affairs.
Rajoub, for his part, raised a threat of his own when this idea was presented to him. “When it comes to Jerusalem, everyone will be united,” he said calmly. “And if some regimes have other priorities, they’ll either collapse or fall in line” due to pressure from their publics.
The Trump administration will put both the Palestinian leadership’s threats (revoking recognition of Israel) and their assurances (nonviolence and negotiations) to the test. Although Israel will celebrate Trump’s support, the repercussions of his moves could lead to a severe security crisis not of its own making. The issue of laying claim to Jerusalem, as Rajoub put it, “is like playing with nuclear weapons.”
Israelis, however, view U.S. recognition of their capital in West Jerusalem, held since the state’s founding in 1948, as the correction of a historic wrong. One Likud minister close to Netanyahu told foreign reporters this week, “There’s not going to be any consequences, what’s the big deal?”
The question of consequences will hinge on how far the international community chooses to take its defense of the Palestinian side, and how far the Trump administration chooses to press its defense of Israel internationally.
This “new era” of Trump, peremptorily embraced by Netanyahu and belatedly feared by Abbas, will without doubt put one central article of faith so common among both Israelis and Palestinians to the test: that world affairs, whether in Washington or other major capitals, always inevitably revolves around them.
Photo credit: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images