Tel Aviv — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu framed it as an historic Zionist milestone. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said it marked the withdrawal of the U.S. as peace mediator. Arab leaders warned of renewed Palestinian intifada and unrest across the region.
And yet, in the days after President Donald Trump’s dramatic declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, very little seems to have changed on the ground in the contested city. Though a wave of rioting and clashes broke out in the West Bank, Gaza and in northern Israel, the unrest so far seems well short of the dire predictions of a new uprising.
“On Sunday and Friday there was a lot of chaos, but today it’s calming down. We only want quiet and to end the chaos,” Alladin Mahsin, a Palestinian cab driver from the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiya, told The Jewish Week on Monday.
“It’s a holy place for Muslims and Arabs. Who is he to make such a decision? If someone said, ‘Get out of your house,’ would you agree? This is a holy place for Muslims and Arabs. All of this is politics.”
Despite that, Mahsin said that Palestinians considered Trump’s announcement an unwelcome intervention into their ongoing dispute with Israel over the status of the Holy City.
“It’s not O.K. [Trump] doesn’t control these things,” he said. “It’s a holy place for Muslims and Arabs. Who is he to make such a decision? If someone said, ‘Get out of your house,’ would you agree? This is a holy place for Muslims and Arabs. All of this is politics.”
A poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research over the weekend found that 91 percent viewed the Trump declaration as a threat to Palestinian interests. Some 45 percent said that the most appropriate response to the Jerusalem decision should be cutting ties with the U.S. and an armed intifada.
Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem peace activist and a legal expert on land use in Jerusalem, said that the fallout to Trump’s declaration has been only limited for the time being.
“It’s contained; it’s not usually the geopolitical issues that are the detonators,” he said. “The major destabilizing factor happens over time — and that is that there’s no hope. The Palestinians of east Jerusalem feel that they have no power to shape their lives, and that there isn’t any change. That loss of hope is destabilizing.”
Seidemann said that the Trump declaration would have little immediate impact on the ground. “The city is as divided, less sustainable and more binational than ever before. Nothing in the recognition changes that,” he said.
“That loss of hope is destabilizing.”
In the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the response to the Trump announcement was muted as well, said residents. There were no public celebrations like the annual flag parade with thousands marking the Israeli conquering of Jerusalem in 1967.
“People got the impression that we shouldn’t spike the football,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli-American pollster who lives in a Jerusalem neighborhood that is close to an east Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood. “The greater our public celebration, the bigger the backlash is in terms of terror and rioting.”
The recognition declaration was intended to make good on a Trump campaign promise to immediately move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in keeping with a law passed by Congress in 1995. Despite the recognition, Trump signed a waiver to delay the move of the embassy — a project that is expected to take several years.
Israeli officials have hailed Trump’s decision as a dramatic game-changer for Israel’s claims to the capital city. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin published an English-language “Thank you, Mr. President” message on the front page of Yediot Achronot.
Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. and a deputy minister for diplomacy, gave the decision an even broader sweep, calling recognition of Jerusalem by Israel’s most important ally a momentous development.
“We’ve been waiting for this for 2,000 years. … It corrects the great aberration of not recognizing a sovereign country’s capital — what has been the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years,” he said in a conference call with journalists.
“We’ve been waiting for this for 2,000 years.” – Michael Oren
Supporters of the president’s move said that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — a move breaking with decades of diplomatic precedent — could be an out-of-the-box move that re-energizes the peace talks. It’s also a counterweight to recent efforts in United Nations organizations to ignore Jewish history in the city.
Oren added that Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital exacts a price from the Palestinians for boycotting peace talks with Israel and withdrawing from final-status talks twice since the turn of the century.
(About whether the Trump team would eventually exact a price from Israel for the momentous move regarding Jerusalem, experts were skeptical. “All of this strains credulity to the breaking point,” said former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, referring to the idea that Trump’s move was part of a broader strategy to wring concessions from Israel. “These aren’t elements of a real strategy as much as they are a collection of misplaced hopes.”)
Oren added that, because the declaration by President Trump fulfills a campaign promise, it will further bolster his credibility on the international stage, especially in dealing with North Korea and Iran, said the former Israeli ambassador.
Meanwhile, the embers of the Jerusalem move were still hot this week. According to an early report Monday, a man who detonated an improvised pipe bomb in the Port Authority Bus Terminal cited the Trump decision on Jerusalem as a motive. (Later reports suggested that U.S. attacks on ISIS were more likely the Bangladeshi immigrant’s motivation.) Israel was trading blows with Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip as Palestinians clashed with Israel troops on the border. And Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for a boycott of Israeli Arabs in the northern region of Wadi Ara near Umm el Fahem to punish them for stone-throwing riots in response to the Jerusalem decision.
“They should understand that they are not wanted here. They aren’t part of us,” Lieberman said.
Critics of the Jerusalem move said it was a self-defeating decision for the U.S. that isolates Washington on the world stage and threatens its traditional role as a mediator in Israel-Arab peace talks. The Palestinians said they would not meet with Vice President Mike Pence when he visits the region this month.
No countries followed Trump’s lead to issue a similar declaration. And the European Union immediately poured cold water on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for other nations to follow suit. Standing alongside Netanyahu on Tuesday, Frederica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security, said that the EU considers the only realistic solution to be a two-state solution with Jerusalem as the capital of both states.
“You can’t be a partisan and be a broker simultaneously.”
After the meeting, Mogherini said, “[Netanyahu] can keep those expectations for other [countries] — because for the European Union countries, that won’t happen.”
Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who supports moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, told a conference call hosted by the Israel Policy Forum that the announcement was a missed opportunity in that it wasn’t made as part of a larger strategic declaration on the future of the peace process. Ignoring the Palestinian aspirations in the city will embolden forces that oppose a two-state solution and support one binational entity from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, he said.
The next U.S. diplomatic move is expected to be Trump’s long-awaited plan for the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and the Palestinians. Jared Kushner and envoy Jason Greenblatt have been working for months on a proposal, and the initiative is expected to be unveiled early in 2018.
But the declaration on Jerusalem appears as if it could undermine those efforts, say experts.
“You can’t be a partisan and be a broker simultaneously,” said Siedemann. “The existing mechanism for resolving this conflict has collapsed and there’s nothing to replace it.”