Implications for Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital By Drew Kinney
Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and placement of the United States embassy in the Holy City will not fundamentally change the way Palestinians live or the course of the conflict. It will alter the incentives for major stakeholders in the conflict to continue to operate within the structures of the post-Oslo era.
There is nothing novel about the current Palestinian protests. Between 2015-16, soldiers of the Israeli Defense forces killed around 200 Palestinians and injured roughly 15,000 in response to largely peaceful protests, some stone throwing, and scattered knife attacks.
Indeed, the recent protests in Gaza are probably only tangentially related to Jerusalem. May 15th marks the 70th anniversary of al-Nakba (the Catastrophe), which marks the ethnic cleansing of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948. Today Palestinians were performing a “Nakba-march” as part of a larger protest movement in Gaza that has been on-going for around six weeks.
The status of Jerusalem is not going to make much of a difference to the outcome of the conflict because Israel already had de facto control over the city and, anyway, negotiations were not being seriously considered.
For example, in 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans for new settlement construction in East Jerusalem two days before talks were set to begin with Mahmoud Abbas and in direct opposition to the United States. As far as any two-state solution goes, PM Netanyahu stated in 2009 that Israel would never remove troops from the Jordan Valley. This is not to say the corrupt, abusive Palestinian leadership is free of error; it merely demonstrates that the more powerful party to the conflict, Israel, has zero interest in negotiations.
There will, however, be important changes that down the road will increase the likelihood of violence. For its part, President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA)—which an overwhelming number of Palestinians describe as an extension of the Israeli occupation by proxy—has barely a thread of legitimacy.
If the PA now tries to negotiate over anything with Israel the resulting document would be as valuable to Palestinians as any piece of garbage on the streets of Ramallah. The PA now has to find a new right to rule: negotiations—its gamut under the Oslo Accords—are over.
The Oslo agreements maintain that the Palestinian police should keep order in the West Bank (and Gaza, for that matter, prior to Hamas’ takeover in 2007). As during the second Intifada, one could reasonably expect that if there is mass Palestinian unrest then the PA will be forced to choose between firing on Palestinians, standing and watching, or turning their guns on Israeli soldiers.
It is worth noting that many Palestinian police officers are wholly offended by the move to hand Israel control over Jerusalem. They will be more sympathetic than ever with Palestinians who take to the streets.
If the police do side with protestors, the Palestinian security services would stop sharing intelligence with Israel and possibly fracture, which would only further erode the security environment and allow for greater space for plotting. This time, a larger and more violent Israeli settler community may join the fighting.
The PA’s political leadership would more than likely have to endorse this chain of events. Palestinian politicians might declare that Oslo is dead and continue—maybe with Turkish or Persian Gulf money—paying the security services, not to execute their orders as defined by the Israelis and PLO in the Oslo Accords, but to attack Israeli targets. Several Palestinian security agencies—á la Tanzim—competed for influence and funding by carrying out attacks during the second Intifada.
As for Hamas, there certainly will not be disarmament. Hamas has built its reputation on hardline resistance. The Islamic Resistance Movement is not going to stop resisting now. Unilaterally seizing a territory that is supposed to be negotiated over (according to Oslo) will give Hamas’ claim that a peaceful approach to the Israelis does not work. To compete with Hamas’ greater appeal, Fatah (i.e., the party that controls the PA in the West Bank) will be more likely to reclaim some legitimacy by taking up arms against the Israelis.
Finally, political order in the region, already in flux with civil wars in Syria, northern Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, might further erode. When violence flares up in Palestine, one can typically count on Arab states—especially Jordan—to soothe tensions. Despite their tough rhetoric, they do not at all want to confront the Palestinian question because it exposes how ineffectual they are on that question. Saudi Arabia’s response has been to use the issue as a bargaining chip with Israel; the Saudis appeared at one point to be pressuring Mahmoud Abbas (he rejected this claim) to accept Trump’s peace plan in order to secure an alliance with the US and Israel against Iran.
One can imagine an alternative. To appeal to their base and regain some shred of legitimacy after the popular uprisings in 2011, Turkey’s Erdogan and secular Arab regimes might take a harder stance against Israel. Does anyone remember a less violent period in Middle East history than during the so-called Arab Cold War? This path is unlikely because it was so disastrous for the region’s rulers.
Iran can now capitalize on the move at the US’ expense. The Islamic Republic’s hardliners can claim that the move proves to Middle Eastern rulers that they cannot trust the Great Satan. Surprisingly, Iran did not rip up the nuclear accord in response to Trump’s decision. Without the accord, there is no material incentive to do anything other than confront the United States and Israel. Plus, to maintain its domestic narrative—which it increasingly needs for legitimacy after its repression of the 2009 Green Movement and protests in late 2017 and early 2018—it might pay off for the clerics to unsettle the regional order in their favor.
In short, this decision takes Jerusalem off of the negotiating table—rewarding Israel with a major victory without even having to speak to the other side. It signals Israel and the United States’ desire for an ethno-national single state. The policy inflames tensions and gives the Palestinian leadership—Fatah and Hamas—no incentive to pursue a non-violent strategy (if there was an incentive before the embassy move). Hezbollah and Iran’s propaganda machines will score a major victory and (further) reduce Washington’s influence in every quarter of the Middle East. The Americans, on the other hand, have never been considered an honest broker, so it is not clear how much that will matter.