By James M. Dorsey
US President Donald J. Trump has let a genie out of the bottle with his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and intent to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
In taking his decision, Mr. Trump was implementing long standing US policy dating back to the administrations of presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barak Obama even if none of them were willing to put it into practice.
The key to judging Mr. Trump’s move is the politics behind it and the black swan embedded in it. Recognizing Jerusalem formally as the capital of Israel may well kill two birds at the same time: boost the president’s standing among evangelists and conservatives at home and give him leverage to negotiate what he has dubbed the ultimate deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
There is no doubt that the move will boost Mr. Trump’s popularity among his supporters and financial backers like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and allow him to assert that he has fulfilled a campaign promise.
Far less certain is whether, Mr. Trump will be willing or able to constructively leverage his move to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. His move moreover risks sparking an uncontrollable sequence of events.
US officials have been tight-lipped about peace plans being developed by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and chief Israeli-Palestinian negotiator.
Almost the only confirmed fact about Mr. Kushner’s strategy is that, based on his close relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he is advocating what he describes as an outside-in approach. In this scenario, Saudi Arabia would ensure Arab backing for a peace plan put forward by Mr. Kushner.
Prince Mohammed’s United Arab Emirates counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, working through Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has helped put a key building block in place by facilitating reconciliation between rival Palestinian factions, Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Al Fatah movement and Hamas, the Islamist movement that controlled the Gaza Strip.
The problem with that scenario is that implicit in US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, notwithstanding Mr. Trump’s denial, is a rejection of the notion that any Israeli Palestinian peace deal would have to involve either West Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital or shared control of Jerusalem as a whole that would serve as the capital of both states.
The rejection of that notion would stroke with readouts of a visit to Riyadh last month by Mr. Abbas in which the Saudi crown prince reportedly laid out the peace plan he had discussed with Mr. Kushner. According to that readout by Palestinian officials as well as European and Arab diplomats, East Jerusalem would not be the Palestinian capital.
Moreover, the future Palestinian state would consist of non-contiguous parts of the West Bank to ensure that Israeli settlements in the area remain under Israeli control. Finally, Palestinians would have to surrender their demand for recognition of the right of return for Palestinians who fled Israel/Palestine during the 1948 and 1967 wars.
Beyond the fact that it is hard to see how any Palestinian leader could sign up for the plan, it threatens, coupled with Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, to inflame passions that Prince Mohammed and other Arab autocrats may find difficult to control.
In a region that increasingly and brutally suppresses any form of dissent or protest, Prince Mohammed and other Arab leaders could risk fuelling the fire by seeking to suppress demonstrations against Mr. Trump’s decision and what Arab and Muslim public opinion would perceive as a sell-out of Palestinian rights.
The situation would become even more tricky if protests, as is likely, would first erupt in Palestine and be countered with force by the Israeli military. It is a scenario in which anti-US, anti-Israel protests in Arab capitals could quickly turn into ant-government manifestations.
Palestinian groups have already called for three days of rage. Protests would likely not be restricted to Middle Eastern capitals but would probably also erupt in Asian nations like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia.
In some ways, protests may well be the purpose of the exercise. There is no way of confirming whether the readout provided to officials and diplomats by Mr. Abbas of his meeting with Prince Mohammed is accurate.
In what amounts to a dangerous game of poker, that readout could well serve multiple purposes, including an effort by Mr. Abbas to boost his position at home by projecting himself as resisting US and Saudi pressure.
Against a history of less than accurate media reporting and official statements often designed to maintain a façade rather than reality, Saudi media reported that King Salman warned Mr. Trump that any decision to move the US Embassy before a permanent peace settlement had been achieved would inflame the Muslim world.
While Prince Mohammed and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu see eye to eye in viewing Iran rather than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the region’s core issue, it’s hard to imagine that the crown prince, a man who has proven that he is not averse to unwarranted risks and gambles, would surrender demands for Muslim control of at least part of Islam’s third most holy city. It’s equally unfathomable that he would allow for a situation in which the kingdom’s position as the custodian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina could be called into question.
Public Saudi backing for Mr. Trump’s recognition and any plan to grant Israel full control of Jerusalem would see the genie turning on the kingdom and its ruling family. Not only with public protests but also with demands by Iran that Saudi Arabia be stripped of its custodianship and that Mecca and Medina be put under some kind of pan-Islamic administration.
In other words, Mr. Trump and potentially Prince Mohammed, are playing a game that could lead to a second phase of this decade’s popular revolts and a serious escalation of an already dangerous Saudi-Iranian rivalry that is wreaking havoc across the Middle East.
With his recognition of Jerusalem, Mr. Trump has likely closed the door on any public or Arab support for a peace plan that falls short of what is minimally acceptable to the Palestinians. Moreover, by allowing speculation to flourish over what he has in mind with his ultimate Israeli-Palestinian deal, Mr. Trump has potentially set a ball rolling that neither he nor Arab autocrats may be able to control.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.