President Trump’s announcement on Wednesday that the U.S. government would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital predictably set off a preternaturally gigantic spilling of electronic ink. A good deal of it on the radio and in social media, as best I can tell, amounts to semi-ignorant blather; hence it constitutes a blathard—not as natural or as beautiful as a blizzard, but piled high and irritating all the same.
The ink also naturally forms a kind of political Rorschach Test: Tell me what someone says about the announcement, and I’ll tell you their views, well-considered or otherwise, about all the pertinent issues in the universe of Arab-Israeli contentions.
It would be tedious to march our way through it all. Some of it, however, bears entertainment value and hence deserves mention. For example, the Hamas political directorate in Gaza has proclaimed that Trump’s decision ends forever the possibility of a positive U.S. mediation role in the conflict. This implies that before one p.m. yesterday the Hamas directorate acknowledged the positive U.S. role in mediating the conflict and was willing to participate in good-faith negotiations with the Israeli government under that aegis. This is funny, no?
Then there is the chorus of tongue clucking and tut-tutting from our European allies. The domestic realities of Arab-Muslim political clout—as against relative Jewish political impotence—in Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and elsewhere differs from analogous realities in the United States. That difference—added to both a residual and varying economic bond having largely to do with energy supplies and prices and a supine fear of making of oneself a plumper target for terrorist attacks—accounts for many differences over the years between what those governments say and what by now a long skein of American administrations have said.
Just sticking to the Jerusalem issue in this regard, official European voices said very similar things in the past every time a candidate for President promised to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the embassy there—and when the Senate voted to formally favor the move back in 1995. And as before, the almost total contemporary fecklessness of the former “great nations of Europe”—if I may be allowed a Randy Newman allusion—makes their complaints as insignificant as they are predictable. That doesn’t mean a small country like Israel can afford to ignore them, but still. They’re not as funny as Hamas, true, but a droller kind of humor is anyway their métier.
And of course this self-protective rhetoric has never prevented European government officials (or those of other nations) from meeting with their Israeli counterparts in their Jerusalem offices or visiting the Knesset. So the rhetoric has been and remains just that; it affects the practical protocols of diplomacy not one whit—hasn’t done so in the past and very likely will not do so in the future.
So what does this announcement mean, and do? Well, it bolsters a part of President Trump’s political base and bids to expand it at the expense of Democrats generally. It comes at a time, too, when an otherwise achievement-free White House is feeling—as it should—the white-hot scrutiny of Robert S. Mueller’s investigation closing in all around it—also as it should. So is this a “wag the dog” ploy, when you get right down to it? Could be.
The announcement also marginally helps Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu wiggle away from not one but three corruption scandals threatening to bring him down. Wag-the-dog squared? That could be, too.
There is a less seamy side to the timing, however. Just last week the United Nations General Assembly passed a typical clot of anti-Israel resolutions, and one of them piggybacked on a fairly recent UNSECO resolution asserting by fiat that there is no historical Jewish association with Jerusalem. This accords with one of Yasir Arafat’s wildest lies: that there never was a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, that it was instead somewhere in Yemen.
Muslim historiography itself, available to any literate Arab, makes clear that the Dome of the Rock was knowingly and deliberately built over where the Temple’s “holy of holies” once was. Seventh-century Sunni Islam acknowledged openly its debt and connection to Judaism, even as it believed Islam superseded Judaism. Jewish sources from the period reveal, too, that the Jewish residents of Jerusalem at the time welcomed the building of the Dome of the Rock because it protected the site, which had for a long while been used by the now-vanquished Byzantine Christian authorities, deliberately, as a garbage dump.
Keeping all this in mind, not to speak of the archeological evidence, for Palestinian leaders to continue to insist on the fiction of there being no Jewish historical connection to Jerusalem is simply embarrassing. It identifies those who peddle such bullshistory as unserious people. For the United Nations to ape this nonsense identifies it as an unserious organization. That it ought to embarrass everyone concerned, but doesn’t, says all we need to know about the UN—and the clearer that becomes to normal people, the better. As with Israel and the Europeans, that doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore the UN, especially the Security Council, but still.
Yesterday’s announcement has of course ticked off a lot Arabs and Muslims, Palestinians in particular. Rage and violence among the latter were very predictable and have already begun.
Some have predicted as well that rage and violence will spread afar in Arab capitals, putting post-“Arab Spring” survivor governments in jeopardy as anger directed toward Israel and the United States metastasizes—as anger in mob form often does—into threats against more proximate targets. I doubt this will happen to any significant scale. Survivor and successor Arab regimes are battle hardened against domestic unrest today as they have rarely been in the past, not that they ever ignored that portfolio. And past predictions of explosions on the fabled Arab “street” on account of things going on in Palestine have usually been overwrought. Nevertheless, it would be prudent to beef up embassy security in Cairo, Amman, Baghdad, Tunis, Islamabad, Ankara, and so on.
The general effect within Palestinian politics will be to push a beleaguered Mahmoud Abbas to take a harder line with regard to Israel and a softer line with regard to ongoing “unity” or “reconciliation” negotiations with Hamas—negotiations undertaken through joint Egyptian-Saudi-Emirati supervision, and pressure (of which more below). Logic dictates that such an outcome will make a peace deal harder to reach, but that only matters if one thinks a peace deal is reachable at all in the near future. It isn’t, no matter what the U.S. crown prince may think. By the time a deal might be reachable, the temporary tactics that Abu Mazen feels put upon to implement will have long since taken their place in the bulging archive of snakehead dancing—to deploy the late Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s colorful phrase—at which Palestinian leaders have been forced to become adept.
As to the announcement’s broader impact, looking to the future, on efforts to resolve the conflict, it is mild if it is anything. A look at the terminology of the announcement, and of the somewhat strange White House communiqué speaking of the President in the third person that accompanied it (as if somehow his own words were not sufficiently authoritative or clear…echoes of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy?), shows that the embassy decision was taken with a careful concern not to prejudge or prejudice the solution to the Jerusalem problem in the context of a two-state solution. (Actually, the White House commitment to a two-state solution en passant is as significant as the Jerusalem announcement, given the doubts on that score that were allowed to spread earlier this year.) There is no reason to doubt that assertion. If the parties eventually come to some agreement, of which the future of Jerusalem is a part, nothing said yesterday will be an obstacle. The announcement does not bless the Israeli annexation of the city, nor does it sanctify the pre-June 1967 inner-city boundary that arose de facto on account of the 1948-49 war. It intelligently avoids defining any boundaries whatsoever. It does not say where in Jerusalem a U.S. embassy would be located, and it does not even say when.
It is true that the narrow legal status of the city is bound up in the Partition Resolution of 1947, and to a lesser extent in a between-the-lines reading of the Israel-Transjordanian Armistice arrangement at Rhodes in 1949, and that the announcement runs against the grain of that legal status in Israel’s favor. But the internationalization of the city called for in the 1947 resolution was stillborn: Both the Zionist Executive and the Hashemite court agreed that it would and should not happen, the eventual result being the physical division of the city as a result of the 1948-49 war.
More important, perhaps, the Hashemite claim to speak for any part of Arab Palestine or for any part of Jerusalem was rescinded in 1988 in favor of “Palestine” and the Palestinians , which meant at that point the PLO. That marked the end point of a series of declensions of Jordanian involvement that began with the Arab League Summit at Rabat in 1974.
The Hashemite crown has kept its finger formally in the Temple Mount ever since solely through its stewardship of the Islamic waqf there, and such practical cooperation as there has been since late June 1967 between Israel and the local Arabs has run mainly through Amman. That has irritated the Palestinians—as it was no doubt intended to do—but Jordan’s connection in this residual, limited sphere anyway grew stronger with the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of October 1994. The point is that the legal status of the city according to international law has been frozen despite a good deal of fluidity in practice, which that legal status was powerless to arrest. Yesterday’s announcement falls fairly innocuously into that flow.
That said, the President’s optimistic claim that the announcement “marks the beginning of a new approach to conflict between Israel and the Palestinians” falls somewhere between cryptic and risible—cryptic since no details were broached, risible because the intimation that every approach that could have been tried hasn’t already been conceived and tried is absurd. There is nothing new in the Administration’s approach, insofar as we have a sense of what it is. What is new, arguably, is the context in which an old idea may find a new application.
What is this not-really-new idea? It’s called the outside-in approach. And here, with respect to the current implementation attempt, is where things get strange. Bear with me for a moment.
The outside-in approach takes for granted that, left to their own devices, Palestinian political leaders and Israeli government leaders will not be able to seal a deal. The substantive divisions are too great, and the readiness of relevant publics to accept compromise too thin. So the only way to get the deed done, and thus eliminate the irritation the conflict represents to interested third parties, is to bring in outside parties to leverage the protagonists to come to heel.
This notion has taken several forms over the years since 1967, including the old idea of bringing Israel into NATO in order to limit its policy flexibility in return for indelible assurances about legitimacy and security. But in recent years, the notion has focused instead on cocooning Palestine, and Palestinian nationalism, beneath the tender folded wings of the Arab states. That was the thinking behind the supplementary “multilateral track” established after the Madrid Conference of autumn 1991. It has been the thinking behind several iterations of the Jordanian Option through the years. And the Arab actor that has now become primus inter pares for the outside-in approach is Saudi Arabia.
The idea, depending on its variations and who is explaining it to whom, is to either re-contain the toxin of radical Palestinian nationalism, as it had been contained before 1967, or to protect a nascent Palestinians state from several forms of its own misbehavior, division, and vulnerability until such a time that it can stand responsibly on its own feet with regard to Israel and the larger international “community.” Since Israel is no longer viewed by Arab state elites as an existential problem for them—thanks in part to lasting peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan, and de facto normalization arrangements with several other Arab states—a real difference of interest exists between the Arab states and the Palestinians. So, goes the logic, the Arab states could “deliver” the Palestinians to Israel on behalf of their own parochial state interests, which sees the troublemaking capacities of the Palestinians as inimical to those interests. The palliating argument that goes with this logic—again, depending on who is making the argument to which kind of audience—is that this kind of arrangement is also better for the Palestinians than the creeping status quo of occupation, and better in the long run for Israel too, for mostly similar reasons.
There is nothing wrong with this logic, and a lot right with it given the paucity of alternatives that might work. I myself have made the argument. Thoughtful Israeli leaders have in recent years endorsed the logic, too. The problem has been, until recently, that the Arab states refused to play their parts. In their judgments, the risks of trying to deliver the Palestinians to a deal they would need to do public and palpable things to support outweighed the benefits.
What has changed, may have changed, or still might change? Pretentions of Iranian regional hegemonism have altered Arab state calculations at a time when faith in U.S. protection has waned. Especially if Israeli power can be concorded with Sunni Arab efforts to thwart Iran, selling out the Palestinians would be a small price to pay for that benefit, especially if it could be made to look like something other than a sell-out. And here we have the origin of the aforementioned strangeness.
Without belaboring the backdrop too much, suffice it to say that the Trump Administration has seen Saudi Arabia as the linchpin of what it imagines to be its strategy for the region. The Saudis are supposed to be the deus ex machina for marshaling and bankrolling the Sunni Arab world in dealing with the Islamic State and any pop-up successors, the key to solving the Palestinian mess, and the partner of preference (along with the UAE) in managing the security infrastructure of the Gulf and beyond. Saudi Arabia, in short, has become a Nixon-like “pillar” in a one-degree-of-separation U.S. regional security architecture—although the chances that the President himself would understand the historical analogy are nil.
The appetite for an Israeli-Saudi connection pointed against Iran is already a longstanding one, and has usually constituted a fantasy of one kind or another. A few years ago some fevered minds “uncovered” a secret deal in which the Israeli Air Force would destroy the Iranian nuclear program secretly using Saudi air space and bases in the process. There was no such deal. More recently, rumors have been flying faster than beer pours at a frat party. So the secret deal this time has Netanyahu and Saudi Crown (and very generous art collector) Prince Mohammed bin Salman—with the U.S. crown prince as mediator—agreeing that Israel will hammer Hezbollah in Lebanon and, in return, the Saudis will muscle the Palestinians into accepting a tenth of a loaf in an arrangement with Israel.
Now, this is the kind of thing that might arise from “wee hours” private conversations between MbS and Jared Kushner, since from all appearances neither one of them remotely knows what they’re doing. Still, the reports seemed to me too wild to be true, or even if “wee-hours” true, much too fragile a notion ever to be successfully implemented.
To save his political skin it’s not impossible that Netanyahu would order a massive first-strike against Hezbollah, but it would be very hard to get the IDF senior staff to agree to such a thing for all the risks and costs it would involve. And I frankly doubt that Netanyahu is quite that selfish and irresponsible in a pinch; his behavior with respect to the latest failed peace process effort suggests otherwise. Moreover, it’s not clear at this point, his coalition weakened so much, that Netanyahu even wants to get involved in a negotiation with the Palestinians that might require Israeli concessions to succeed.
If such a deal had been floated, and if Netanyahu proved reluctant to embrace it, that might explain at least some of the strangeness of recent days. It has proceeded more or less like this.
According to many press reports, MbS summoned Abu Mazen to Riyadh a few weeks ago to “brief” him on the outside-in plan up his sleeve, and the plan was said (later by Abu Mazen) to be so draconian that no Palestinian leader could possibly accept it. My guess is that for purposes of self-protection, Abu Mazen exaggerated the downside of what the Saudis told him. But he has reason to worry. It is well known that the Emirati and Egyptian leaderships have been plotting, with Saudi knowledge and approval, to insert Mohammed Dahlan into Abu Mazen’s seat at some point. Dahlan is the kind of corrupt pragmatist that an outside-in deal requires; he supposedly gets along even with thugs-turned-cabinet ministers like Avigdor Lieberman. Reportedly, the Saudis told Abu Mazen that if he did not swallow the terms proffered, the Emirati-Egyptian-Saudi phalanx would replace him with someone who would. Abu Mazen did not have to guess at the name.
When word got out about this—whether the story is true or not, or half true and deliberately exaggerated, is almost beside the point—it forced the Saudis publicly to disavow at least the Jerusalem aspect of this supposed plan, since they knew in advance what was planned to be announced on Wednesday. This would be an easy call if by then they knew there was no “big deal” to be had with the Israelis—at least not yet. They asserted publicly that East Jerusalem had to be the capital of a Palestinian state and strongly urged the White House not to change U.S. policy. The White House went ahead anyway. Then, also Wednesday, for the first time the White House, not the State Department, called on the Saudi government to lift the “humanitarian” siege of Yemen, an announcement that is sure to piss off MbS.
None of this makes a lot of sense: If the Trump White House put all its eggs into the Saudi basket, then why do things guaranteed to alienate your preferred proxy? That’s exactly what it did: By picking on the Jerusalem issue, Trump gave Abu Mazen a club to whack the Saudis with, and the Saudi recoil in turn has harmed the U.S.-Saudi relationship Trump is depending on. This is statecraft malpractice in the first degree.
And why send Vice President Pence to the region to discuss the fallout rather than Kushner or Tillerson? Just because Kushner and Tillerson are involved in a pissing match that resulted in a headline last week about Tillerson’s imminent departure from the State Department? That’s so petty. More important, it reflects the fact that no adults are firmly in charge in and around the Oval Office.
As I said, strange….. maybe we’ll be privy to some eventual clarifications. For the time being, however, the best explanation seems to be that we are in the midst of a “monkey-in-the-machine-room” episode, in Washington-Riyadh stereo.
Meanwhile, the only practical way to solve the Jerusalem issue in the context of a good-faith negotiation has long been obvious—to me at least, and to a few others I could name (a former Jordanian King, a law professor at Tel Aviv University, a pope, and so on). Once again, here it is.
Since the symbolic profile of the Jerusalem issue is bound up with uncompromisible religious convictions that reach all the way up to heaven, the first condition of a resolution is to remove the symbolic obstruction—and do so in a way that both main sides—Jewish and Muslim—would be embarrassed to object to. How? Easy: Get the protagonists to agree to put in abeyance the question of national sovereignty over the Old City in perpetuity, and instead recognize the sovereignty of God. Jews, Muslims, and Christians are supposed to believe that Jerusalem, al-Qods (the “holy” in Arabic), is God’s city, the holy city of peace. So let them put their mouths where their theologies are.
Once the symbolic issues are set aside in this fashion, it takes just one more ounce of imagination to resolve the rest. Instead of seeing sovereignty in standard modern territorial terms, sovereignty needs instead to be vouchsafed in people. Like the old Ottoman millet system that worked for about 400 years, functional control has to reside in voluntary communal affiliation. So when it comes to, say, voting for local and national representatives, the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem can vote for their councils and the Arab citizens can vote for theirs, no matter exactly where in the city they happen to live. It takes a massive mutual failure of imagination not to understand this, but, unfortunately, such failures have been common. Overcoming them takes enlightened leadership. Wake me, please, when you detect any.
If the symbolic and political aspects of a settlement can be agreed, cooperation on things like garbage removal, street light repairs, and all the rest become about as easy as they have proved to be de facto for about the past half century. For a good-sized ancient (and partly modern) city, Jerusalem’s streets and parks are reasonably clean—at least compared to Tel Aviv or Ramallah. This is neither a coincidence nor a matter of dumb luck. Jewish and Arab residents of Jerusalem both revere the city in which they live, if not always for exactly the same reasons. That love creates sufficient bonds of pragmatism to transcend, or at least to bracket, differences and disagreements. It’s a basis for expansion, and for hope. There—some good news at last. Keep it safe; it’s rare.
Finally, a word about Zionism at its best and in its essence. Many Jews, in Israel but especially outside it, seem to think something truly important inheres in President Trump’s statement. They seem to think it meaningfully validates one of their own deeply held principles in some non-trivial way.
Well, it is true that international expressions of Israel’s legitimacy are of tactical significance—as the anniversaries of both the Balfour Declaration and the Partition Resolution remind us. But for Jews to imagine that they need outside concurrence to ratify their own decision as to where the capital of the State of Israel should be means they have failed to grasp the real meaning of Zionism. “Hatiqva,” the anthem of the State, includes the line, “to be a free people in our land, in the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” A free people does not need anyone’s permission to decide such matters.
And, just by the way, the same principle will apply to free Palestinians if they ever determine to make the collective decisions that will enable them to possess the state that has long since been offered them. It is in everyone’s interest that they do that soon, before it is too late.