In the Jewish Diaspora, the prayers for Passover and Yom Kippur end with the plea: “Next year in Jerusalem.” At least since roughly the 15th century, these words expressed what was understood as the utopian hope of returning not simply to a homeland but a place of redemption. The sacred character of that longing from times past has been badly tarnished by exigency and hypocrisy; it is par for the course that US President Donald Trump should soil whatever he touches. His decision of 6 December 2017 to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has served as a precedent for Israel’s annexationist ambitions and an obstacle to any future Palestinian state. It has also undermined the global standing of the United States of America.
Frustration has intensified. The eerie silence surrounding stymied negotiations generated talk of a new intifada, violent outbursts in Gaza and Israeli military attacks that left four dead and 300 wounded. Trump’s declaration offered no hint of a quid pro quo that might benefit the Palestinians. Media coverage in the US (such as it was), however, lasted only for a day or two before MSNBC and CNN turned back to domestic issues. It wasn’t just a matter of ratings.
Trump’s usual critics were not exactly outraged by the initiative. Former diplomats and Middle East “experts” did challenge its “timing”, its impact on negotiations and the lack of Israeli concessions, but they offered few reasons why Trump should not have made his decision public. American policy was never even-handed, and Israel has no pressing need to concede anything. Unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership has never taken this to heart or shaped its negotiating stance to the reality that it simply lacks the power of its adversary.
Trump’s critics, usually so voluble, were delighted. They fulminated a bit but quickly came to their senses. They noted that “logistical” problems would prevent any transfer before 2020 and that, besides, the President was simply recognising the facts on the ground: most American offices are already located in Jerusalem. However, symbolic politics is still politics, and Trump made his symbolic point. Jerusalem’s “Western Wall”, which stands outside the pre-1967 borders and adjoins various Islamic holy sites, now apparently belongs to Israel. More than a few liberal Zionists nodded in agreement and, in fact, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat, New York) boasted of having advised Trump on his Jerusalem initiative.
As for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, she wrote a carefully worded statement suggesting that, while Jerusalem is the” eternal capital of the Jewish homeland”, Trump’s action was inopportune given the absence of a negotiated settlement. She, too, ignored Palestine’s principled claims and undertook her critique on purely pragmatic grounds. That was and is not enough. Unlike Christian evangelicals, Zionist extremists or most in the orthodox Jewish community, mainstream Democrats may not go out on a limb, but they have no real problem with the idea of a unified Jerusalem under Israeli control, or what will assuredly become an annexation of the West Bank.
Most Americans are sick of the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general and the Palestinians in particular. Trump’s cynical declaration on Jerusalem spoke to that reality. Shifting the US Embassy to Jerusalem offered the President a momentary reprieve from the lurid congressional investigations plaguing his administration, accusations of sexual misconduct and the controversy surrounding his wildly unpopular tax bill.
His decision also provided him with an “achievement” and proactive compensation given the inevitable failure of the “ultimate” Israeli-Palestinian peace plan formulated by Jared Kushner; the so-called “deal of the century”. The approach of his team came down to “take it or leave it”. Palestinians would receive a state without contiguous borders, control over airspace and water, recognition of the right of return or plans for the withdrawal of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank. Hamas would remain excluded as Fatah was turned into the sole representative of the Gaza Strip over which it still lacks any control.
The bottom line was this: Kushner’s peace package offered little more than the framework for a failed-state although, according to the New York Times (12/8/2017), Saudi Arabia might sweeten the pot with some cash. Palestinians could not possibly accept such terms. A treaty of this sort, a one-sided “peace”, can only be implemented by force or fiat, a previously implausible idea yet, given the ongoing character of Trump’s foreign policy, not unimaginable now.
Trump would never admit it, but his policy assuredly contributed to a new wave of European anti-Semitism as well as greater international isolation for Israel. The UN condemned the Jerusalem initiative. Israel will undoubtedly face more boycotts, vilification, protests and violence. Iraq’s powerful militia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr called for a new “Arab Spring” targeting Israel that would unite Shia and Sunni. Unleashing an anti-Semitic wave and turning Israel into even more of an international pariah was not in its national interest.
With regard to the interests of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, it was another matter entirely. He claimed an extraordinary victory, and used the new state of siege to justify his obsession with security, Islamophobia and claims of unfair and anti-Semitic treatment by the rest of the world.
Recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem turned into a testament to Netanyahu’s leadership, and it has kept him afloat. No less than the US President, who has been enmeshed in one scandal after another since he took office, the Israeli Prime Minister was embroiled in a deepening corruption and bribery scandal of his own. Trump came to his rescue. The Jerusalem initiative served as a gift to orthodox religious and Zionist imperialist groups whose political support Netanyahu’s partially Likud-led coalition still requires. Trump’s declaration also enhanced the “Jewish” and authoritarian rather than the non-denominational and democratic identity of the Israeli state.
Extremists in Israel and Palestine have done everything possible to sabotage any prospect for peace or a two-state solution. Both are now off the table at least for the foreseeable future. Trump’s initiative officially placed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the hands of those forces seeking to perpetuate rather than resolve it.
The stalemate is Israel’s doing. Talk of peace is a smokescreen. Trump’s decision was actually a provocation that dared the Palestinians to embrace violence; so far, they have shown remarkable restraint and have resisted the temptation. Most European leaders have condemned the US and it is now seen as an “unreliable” broker. The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation responded by recognising East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, jettisoning the United States as a negotiating partner and preparing to recognise a Palestinian state with very different borders.
Untrustworthy authoritarian states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have become proxies for US interests in the Middle East. In keeping with its more general withdrawal from various international associations, America has now abandoned its role as a regional mediator. Originally, it was thought, this would enable its President to concentrate on pursuing more militant policies against Iran and North Korea, none of which have borne fruit.
“Next year in Jerusalem!” was once the cry of an oppressed people seeking liberation from slavery and repenting its sins. Those same words now express the sentiments of an arrogant regime with expansionist ambitions. That change makes a mockery of the ethical gravitas associated with figures like Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Abraham Heschel and a host of other intellectual and activist luminaries. New peace proposals are surely necessary, even speculative ones, since there is no longer much on the table. Especially when all seems lost, however, it is crucial to remember the cosmopolitan ideals and humanistic values that are under attack. Today, there is something profoundly irresponsible about ignoring either the prescience or the challenge of Walter Benjamin’s call to “rub history against the grain”.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.