Following President Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, the somewhat dormant Palestine file has been shaken up and catapulted into the headlines. The reactions and fallout are being superimposed on existing regional fault lines in ways that may throw up challenging new risks and opportunities. When Palestinian President Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah looked over their shoulders at the recent emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation they were flanked by the Presidents of Turkey and Iran and the Qatari Emir, together with other leaders from the region and beyond – Kuwait, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and more. Craning their heads further, only lower level officials could be spotted from Egypt, Saudi Arabia or the UAE. That is not business as usual.
It has not taken long, in fact only a matter of days, for a revisionist narrative of events to have been floated. That argument weaves together a number of threads – that the Trump declaration itself is rather nuanced, that it does not close the door on the administration’s peace effort, that the Palestinians are to blame for over-reacting, and that the negative pushback has been minimal. The revisionist case is being advanced by those in the region who are most implicated in the declaration given their closeness to the administration, and by some of the commentariat class in Washington D.C. beholden to an agenda of mollycoddling Israel. It is also a narrative that is patently at odds with reality and easily debunked.
To take at face value the President’s claim that ‘we are not taking a position on any final status issues’ is an insult to intelligence. The very next words uttered by Trump were ‘including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem’. This was a crucial sentence. The President referred only to Israeli sovereignty in the context of Jerusalem and never mentioned Palestinian sovereignty. Nothing more really needs saying.
The Palestinians are then blamed for overreacting, walking away from the peace process and preparing to stonewall Vice President Pence during his anticipated (albeit now postponed) visit to the region. Anyone who accuses this Palestinian leadership of insufficient dedication and loyalty to the peace process has either not been paying attention or belongs in the world of comedy not politics, statesmanship or diplomacy.
What beggars belief is not that the Palestinians are now questioning their continued engagement with the peace process but rather the longevity of their pre-existing commitment to a proposition that has so evidently failed and set back their cause and rights. Data and realities on the ground speaks for themselves – settlement expansion, land confiscation, home demolitions and restriction of Palestinian freedom of movement all increased rather than decreased during the peace process.
Israel rejects every tool known to conflict resolution that could actually advance peace – terms of reference for negotiations, application of international law, balanced outside mediation, timelines, penalties and disincentives for non-compliance, dispute resolution mechanisms and of course the application of leverage on more than one party (the Palestinian party). Israel has turned the peace process itself into an exercise of cost-free management of the Palestinians and entrenchment of Israel’s control. None of that would have been possible without American complicity, facilitation and leaning-in on the side of Israel.
If the Palestinian leadership holds firm to its position of no return to business as usual peace-processing, then this is not an overreaction but rather a delayed reaction.
If as a result of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, the much-anticipated ‘White House peace plan’ does not see the light of day, then that is a net gain not only for the Palestinians but ultimately
for the cause of peace and therefore also for the long-term well-being of Israelis and others in the region. This is not a loss to be mourned.
Given how little the President’s speech addressed actual American national security considerations or interests, it appears that the announcement was cooked up in good measure according to an Israeli recipe. The dynamic represents a win-win for Israel: if a plan is presented it will overwhelmingly favor Israel; No plan and Israel is free to continue with a status quo over which it exerts exclusive control. In fact, Israel may well prefer the ‘no plan and blame the Palestinians’ option given that anything that contains the words peace or Palestinians is an affront to the ideological composition of the current Israeli governing coalition. It is not unreasonable to speculate that the Trump announcement may have been designed to achieve that very outcome.
There have also been attempts to portray the implementation of the Jerusalem announcement and management of the fall out as a success. If American splendid isolation over climate change and The Paris Agreement is considered a success then this too, merits such accolades. The Jerusalem announcement has generated a rare (but not unprecedented) global consensus on Israel/Palestine that stands in opposition to America. This has been forthcoming from all other members of the quartet, the UN Security Council, the G7, and America’s allies in the region and around the world. The Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation both convened emergency summits to denounce the Trump proclamation as well as popular mobilizations from Palestine to Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan, Indonesia and elsewhere.
Far from demonstrating the marginalization of the Palestine issue, the White House has given the Palestinians a saliency shot in the arm. That outcome could perhaps only be achieved by the misstep of placing Jerusalem front and center in such a blunt fashion – an iconic issue and symbol for the world’s three monotheistic faiths and one that therefore resonates far and wide.
This has put White House regional allies in a particularly tight spot. Claims of culpability and/or complicity of the Saudi, Egyptian and Emirati leadership in the lead up to the Jerusalem declaration, whether fully accurate or not, are gaining traction. The sequence of events (notably Jared Kushner’s October Riyadh visit) has made this a gift to America’s main adversary, Iran and its allies, and to its estranged friend in Ankara. Both Turkey and Iran have assumed prominence in their pushback on Jerusalem. We have also been offered a glimpse of alliances which transcend the dominant contemporary regional motif of a Sunni-Shia sectarian divide.
The new Saudi leadership, on paper at least, has managed to form numerically broad coalitions, whether that be around its Yemen military campaign, the Islamic Military Counter-terrorism Alliance set up in December 2015, or in the Arab Islamic American Summit held in Riyadh in May of this year at which President Trump was hosted on his first overseas trip. However, on this occasion it is the Saudis and their closest regional allies – Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain – who are in a minority, isolated and scurrying for cover. That quartet is by no means an insignificant bloc, but when the issue is Jerusalem, and the perception is one of siding with Israel and the United States against Palestinian, Arab and Muslim interests, then that is a vulnerable and exposed space to be in – from the perspective of both regional and domestic politics.
King Salman and President Al Sisi for instance, have sought to diffuse this by putting out their own statements on Jerusalem that align with the Palestinians, not the US. They have not however assumed leadership or ownership of opposing the US move, have continued to send re-assuring signals to Israel and Washington and dispatched low-level representation to the OIC summit. They have especially, it seems, worked to bring the Palestinians back in line. Their goal apparently is for the initial Palestinian response to become a short-lived aberration and to shepherd the Palestinians back into the American-Israeli peace process comfort zone.
It is not unique to Saudi Arabia or Egypt to seek to balance their equities and interest in maintaining both the improved US-under-Trump relations while managing their exposure on such a hot button regional issue as Palestinian Jerusalem. The problem for the pro-Trump regional alliance is that a misreading of the strategic map risks enhancing that exposure. Backing Trump on the Palestine file is a losing proposition and one that will now come under increased scrutiny.
The Palestinian leadership would be well advised to seize this as a moment to irreversibly shift direction away from an Israeli-American-dictated process and to avoid slipping back into old routines. The Jordanian leadership sits on the horns of an unenviable dilemma. King Abdullah has thus far demonstrated that one can stake out a principled line without losing the West and has shown a degree of courage.
Any attempt to return to the status quo ante of peace-processing faces an insurmountable problem when it comes to carrying credibility with Palestinians or publics in the broader region and Muslim world. America’s predisposition to support Israeli demands, no matter how hardline or antithetical to peace those demands are, is a constant feature of the landscape. That problem predates the Trump administration but is greatly exacerbated by the current White House.
The US principals currently handling this file are deeply imbibed with an ideologically maximalist Israeli narrative. They have worn their prejudices on their sleeves when it comes to the issue. But outside of the Israel-Palestine file, the administration has a broader ideological project which leaves little space for a genuine reckoning with, or sympathy for, Muslim sensitives or even dignity, on Jerusalem or any other issue. The powerful alt-right wing of the administration, which resonates most with the President’s base, is heavily steeped in white nationalism, islamophobia, and in sharpening contradictions and divisions with the Muslim ‘other’. It was an approach witnessed frequently during the campaign, it characterizes several senior appointments (some of whom have left but some remain), it dominates the supportive media echo chamber such as Breitbart, has been manifested in policy priorities such as the Muslim travel ban, and is glimpsed for instance in the President’s retweeting of the anti-Muslim scaremongering videos propagated by a far-right fringe British political activist.
Even if the Palestinians are coaxed or dragged back into the peace process or themselves re-embrace the golden cage, the results will be far from stellar and given the backdrop of the Jerusalem declaration could play out extremely negatively for those associated with the return to business as usual. It is considered axiomatic that every crisis also carries the seeds of an opportunity. From an unexpected and unintended source the Palestinians are being presented with a route out of the strategic cul-de-sac in which they have for so long stagnated. It will ultimately be for the Palestinians to make that choice. But they will need a supportive hinterland, something without which, for instance, the ANC struggle in South Africa could never have succeeded.
That hinterland is today riven by even greater division, conflict and competing claims to leadership and legitimacy. The issue of Palestine has thus far been able to create unity only of a rhetorical kind. By putting the spotlight on Jerusalem, an opportunity has been created, limited and fragile, yet nonetheless real. Palestinians will have to make hard choices. So too will others. The Pax Americana regional camp has been on the ropes for some time. Doubling-down on that American dependency bet now presages an ever-bumpier ride, even for Israel itself. Aligning with Netanyahu and the Trump White House on Jerusalem and any future so-called peace plan, in effect a blueprint for Palestinian surrender, will carry costs. Stepping out in front on this issue, as some have already done, will carry benefits. It is an equation in which the Palestinians do have cards to play, and one that could become interesting – if the Palestinians assert their own agency.