Quite a chain of events have been crystallising over the past few weeks indeed.
For over 3000 years Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people. And once again in the third Jewish Commonwealth re-established on the very same Jewish homeland, Jerusalem is of course yet again the capital of the State of Israel.
As Martin Luther King might have said – we hold these truths to be self-evident.
Not withstanding this historic reality, the United Nations Partition Plan seventy years ago determined that Jerusalem would be an internationally supervised city falling under neither Israeli nor Arab sovereignty.
Of course what happened was that the Jews were expelled from the Old City of Jerusalem by invading Arab armies, Jewish Holy sites were either vandalised or completely destroyed, and Jews were barred from the holiest site in all Judaism – the Kotel, or the Western Wall of the Temple.
So much for UN decisions and international guarantees.
Nineteen years later in 1967, after Arab armies once again set out “to drive the Jews into the sea”, they were defeated and Jerusalem in its entirety fell into Israeli hands. It goes without saying that since then under Israel’s control, the rights of all religions are respected. Moslems, Christians and Jews can now and for the past 50 years since, all pray at their respective Holy sites and freely observe their various rites and customs.
In April 2017, Russia recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and no-one even seems to notice.
In December 2017, President Trump maked a historic but cautious statement on behalf of the USA recognising the obvious – Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.
Simultaneously he made clear that when doing so, he does not specify what the Israeli capital’s borders will be, nor what it will or will not include.
Moreover he specifically stated that nothing practical will change, the US embassy will not move as yet and that the status quo of the Holy sites must remain unchanged.
All pending he says, an actual agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
When detailing why he becomes the first US President to formally recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump is very careful to only use landmarks such as the Knesset, High Court, Prime Minister’s residence et al, that is, those found in West Jerusalem. Without actually using the term.
US Vice President Pence, an Evangelical Christian, visits Israel in January last week and is very careful to identify Jews with the Kotel, but without mentioning Israel. Like Trump, his visit to the Kotel was called a “private visit” and no actual Israeli government official accompanied him.
In Pence’s speech to the Knesset, which occurred after Mahmoud Abbas’ brain explosion (more on that below), and despite it, Pence was still very careful to state:
“we’re not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders.”
In one sense, the Trump announcement was purely symbolic.
It was the recognition of an idea.
There was in effect, no practical result from Trump’s declaration. And certainly no burial of the Two State solution – on the contrary, the offer was there for the Palestinians, should they wish it to be so.
In the year since Trump was elected, the biggest debate inside the Israeli government was how to deal with a President much more positively disposed to Israel than his predecessor.
But at the same time, a new President who is notoriously sensitive about who and how he calls ‘friend’ and who can quickly turn against anyone he sees as disagreeing with him or upsetting his unclear agenda – or who he simply thinks, ‘disrespects’ him.
Trump has from the first declared that he, being ‘the great deal maker’, will make the ‘ultimate deal’ – that between Israel and the Palestinians.
And it often seems that for Trump, being recognised as ‘the deal-maker’ is more important than the contents of the deal itself.
Whilst publicly strongly supporting Israel, Trump was also happy to put heavy behind the scenes pressure on Israel, to restrain any activity that Trump thought might affect his chances of being said ‘deal-maker’.
In effect – this turned the Israeli government into two general overall factions vis-à-vis the conflict.
The dominant one being Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu together with Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the other being the rest of the government coalition.
This meant that Netanyahu and Lieberman effectively became the ‘left wing’ of the government, showing restraint in all areas to do with Gaza, the West Bank/Judaea and Samaria and the Palestinians generally. Whether by enabling their easier movement around these areas, better health services, quicker building of housing for Palestinians, measured responses to rocket attacks or in many other ways.
And also in regard to the building of Jewish settlement housing. A litmus test indicator.
The Israeli government became a much louder announcer of Jewish settlement building starts than an actual builder.
If you want to see the Trump/Netanyahu/Lieberman effect here, just look at the recently revealed figures from the Israeli Ministry’s Population and Border Authority as reported by the Times of Israel on the 21st of January:
- Whilst the number of Israelis in the West Bank/Judaea and Samaria is still increasing, the rate of growth declined for the 6th consecutive year outside of Jerusalem. In 2016 the growth rate was 3.9%. In 2017, 3.4%.
- Settler leaders blamed the decreased growth in 2017 on a “quiet freeze” where homes have received final government approval on paper, but which have not actually been built
- The anti-settlement organisation Peace Now confirmed the 2017 slowdown saying “construction has begun for just 46 of the roughly 3,000 homes that gained final approval in 2017”.
Netanyahu has done all of this based on an overall strategy of not wanting to be the one responsible for collapsing the Trump dream of being ‘the deal-maker’. And his strategy is now paying dividends as it unmasks the real Abbas.
Trump’s symbolic declaration regarding Jerusalem has turned out to be truly transformational and hugely significant.
In making his declaration, Trump in December included:
“The capital the Jewish people established in ancient times”.
Trump recognised Jerusalem not only as the capital of Israel, but as the Jewish capital.
And this is the real ‘problem’ for those who oppose Trump’s declaration.
With one fell swoop, Trump undermined the entire Palestinian narrative.
He recognised the truth of over 3,000 years of history – the fact that the Jews are the indigenous people of the land and not foreigners.
In Israel the debate is always between 1947 and 1967, between the Partition Plan and the results of the 6 Day War – that is how big or small Israel should be.
Mahmoud Abbas the so called moderate leader of the supposedly more moderate of the two Palestinian entities (the Palestinian Authority and Hamas) showed that he was stuck effectively back in 1917, fighting the Balfour Declaration and arguing, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has said all along, that a Jewish State of any size is simply not acceptable to the Palestinians.
In a rambling 2 hour speech by Abbas to the Palestinian Central Council on the 14th of January some two weeks ago, he began with:
“I am saying that Oslo, there is no Oslo”
and simply went on from there.
“We won’t accept his (Trump’s) project; his deal of the century is the slap of the century, and we will respond.”
And then proceeded to curse Trump with the common Arab insult that:
“May your house be destroyed”.
The man who had supposedly decided to make peace with Israel also said:
“Europeans wanted to bring Jews here to preserve their interests in the region. They asked Holland, which had the world’s largest fleet, to move the Jews. Israel is a colonial project that has nothing to do with the Jews”.
Oh and by the way, Abbas “totally rejected” the notion that he should cease payments to the families of Palestinians suicide bombers and terrorists.
The words and nature of Abbas’ speech have brought leaders of Israeli political parties almost across the entire spectrum to publicly state that there is currently no partner for peace.
The matter of debate in Israel now centres around how to proceed in the absence of a peace partner.
Separate further, act to ensure Israel’s actions do not preclude a possible two State solution in the future, partial annexation or……..?
We do not know if Trump will still present his parameters for ‘the deal’ in March as was widely expected and whether or not he will care to seek some agreement on them a priori from either side, or not.
Will what has transpired cause him to dismiss Palestinian rejectionism, bypass them and go to Arab States for a solution, or in fact pressure Israel for greater concessions to try and bring the Palestinians back?
In Davos on Thursday Trump let it rip when he said in far blunter terms than Pence in regard to the Palestinians:
“but respect has to be shown to the US, or we just are not going any further.”
And sitting next to Netanyahu at Davos Trump said:
“I can tell you, Israel does want to make peace, and they (the Palestinians) are going to have to want to make peace too, or we aren’t going to have anything to do with them any longer. This was not brought up by other negotiators, but it is brought up by me.”
In true Trump ‘dealmaker’ style, he also leaned over to Netanyahu and said:
“You won one point, and you’ll give up some points later on in the negotiation, if it ever takes place.”
That by the way was a statement, not a question.
What we do know is that President Trump’s Jerusalem declaration and Abbas’ reaction to it, have changed the entire dynamic – at least for now.