The setting of President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last week was well prepared to have maximum effect on the Israeli public.
Trump began his speech exactly at eight in the evening local time (13.00 Washington time, a strange timing for an historic speech), when all Israel’s television networks begin their highly viewed evening news shows, and his text was given in advance to the networks so they could prepare a translation and attach subtitles in Hebrew to Trump’s speech in English.
Most Israeli commentators were unanimous in assessing that Trump’s speech was a historic one. Even left-leaning analysts admitted that they were thrilled to hear the American president speaking in such warm words about the 3,000-year-long Jewish attachment to its eternal capital.
Netanyahu learnt this week the grave limitations of the American influence worldwide in the Trump era
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was in a celebratory mood. As a son of a Medieval historian, he placed Trump’s statement as one of the most important events in modern Jewish history, equal only to the Balfour declaration, Israel’s independence in 1948 and the occupation (liberation in his words) of Jerusalem in 1967. Culture Minister Miri Regev, known for her pompous words, said that Trump’s name “will be engraved forever on the stones of Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall”.
Yet despite the warm welcome to Trump’s speech among the Jewish Israeli public, no scenes of joy were seen in Israel or even in Jerusalem itself. Most Israelis, so it seems, were content to know that the American president puts himself on their side in such an unambiguous way, but they failed to see how it affects their life. From their first day in kindergarten all Israelis are taught that Jerusalem is their capital. With all its symbolic meaning, there was nothing new for the average Israeli in Trump’s speech.
As days passed it became clearer that even politically Trump’s words had less impact than the Israeli right read into them immediately after they were pronounced. The fact that while recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump declared that its borders will be decided in later negotiations was initially ignored, intentionally or unintentionally, by the Israeli right, which preferred to see it as a recognition in Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem.
Demonstrators walk over images of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu as they take part in a protest in Paris on 9 December. (AFP)
Transportation Minister Israel Katz, one of the strongest men in Netanyahu’s Likud party and a frontrunner in the undeclared battle to replace him in case he has to quit due to the criminal investigations against him, was brave enough to tell the Saudi website Elaf that Trump did not recognise “united Jerusalem” (a code name for the annexation of its Palestinian part) as Israel’s capital and left the door open on the issue of East Jerusalem. This admission is far from the jubilant mood manifested by Netanyahu in the first hours following Trump’s speech.
Trump’s move was compared to the exchange of letters between president George W Bush and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 in which the American president wrote that the Palestinian refugee problem should be resolved outside of Israel’s borders and that any peace deal will have to take into account the existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
But this is misleading. While the issues of settlements and refugees remained highly contentious in all negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the Palestinians never really refused to recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital after a peace deal is signed.
No more takers
The international arena looks even less promising for Israel. Netanyahu did not hide his expectations that other countries will follow President Trump. Viewing the traditional weight attached to any American position on world affairs, this was a reasonable surmise. When the Czech president Milos Zeman announced that his country would consider recognising West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, this was seen as just the first drop in a sea of international recognition.
Even the Czech Republic and Hungary, two of the more pro-Israeli Eastern Europe countries, refrained to say when, if at all, they will move their embassy to Jerusalem
It did not happened. Netanyahu hoped that during his visit to Brussels early this week, which was scheduled before Trump’s speech, he would be able to convince at least some EU member states into recognising Jerusalem. He failed. Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, flatly rejected the American move and denied any compromise on this issue. His meeting with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, did not go any better.
Even the Czech Republic and Hungary, two of the more pro-Israeli Eastern Europe countries in which Netanyahu invested considerable effort and time, refrained eventually to say when, if at all, they will move their embassy to Jerusalem.
Netanyahu learnt this week the grave limitations of the American influence worldwide in the Trump era. If, as reports in the Israeli media suggest, EU leaders publicly declare Jerusalem as the joint capital of Israel and a future independent Palestinian state, it will amount to a colossal Israeli diplomatic defeat.
From the Israeli point of view, the picture also looks mixed regarding the Palestinians. It is true that the Palestinian parties and organisations, which unanimously called for large-scale demonstrations last week, failed to mobilise the masses.
There were marches and clashes in all the Palestinian cities, but the scale was smaller than expected. The Israeli army was relatively restrained, especially in the West Bank, and as the number of casualties has so far been small, the Israeli media just ignored the demonstrations.
Most Israeli commentators interpreted this mild initial response as a failure for the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ policy and for Hamas’ pretensions to initiate a third Intifada. But this is a rather narrow point of view. The demonstrations did not die out and grew more intense on Friday, and the situation along the border with Gaza became more violent with several protesters killed.
Arab-Israeli protesters shout slogans and wave the Palestinian flag during a demonstration in the Israeli-Palestinian town of Sakhnin on 15 December against US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (AF
Yet more importantly, after being almost forgotten by most of the Arab and Muslim world, the issue of Jerusalem helped Abbas to revive the Palestinian question on the regional and international arena. The demonstrations all over the Arab and Muslim world did not spin out of control, but sent a clear message that regarding Jerusalem, the Palestinians are not alone.
The final resolution of the 57 members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit held in Istanbul this week, which declared East Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine, certainly did not come as surprise to Israel. Yet Israel cannot ignore the fact that at least 20 member countries in this organisation hold full diplomatic relations with it.
Arab allies muted
No less important, the “Sunni axis” – Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Egypt – in which Netanyahu and Israel held high hopes, seems to have suffered a difficult blow. Although the language they used was rather mild, Egypt and Saudi Arabia had no alternative but to condemn Trump’s speech. It is difficult to see how the Saudi government will permit itself to upgrade its relations with Israel, as it clearly wished to just before Trump’s latest move.
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With their refusal to accept the visit of the US Vice President Mike Pence in Ramallah, Abbas and the Palestinians have raised the stakes against what was considered to be the strongest and maybe only outside force in the Middle East conflict. So far, it seems, the gamble has worked. If Trump hoped to push through his “ultimate deal” by persuading the Saudis to pressure the Palestinians into an agreement which – according to most leaks – seemed extremely unfavorable to them, this prospect looks very distant now.
Despite the Palestinian position, the US will remain the main negotiator in the Middle East for the foreseeable future, primarily because no one else – neither the EU nor Russia – is ready to take its place. But the weakness shown by American diplomacy in recent days will certainly not help its best friend in the region, namely Israel. This is not to say the solemn American recognition of Jerusalem as its capital made Israel the loser, but it did not give it any tangible gains either.
– Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for an inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the news department at Haaretz, and now an independent journalist.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on 6 December 2017 during a diplomatic conference organised by daily Israeli newspaper Jerusalem Post focused on Israel’s security and economic ties with countries globally, in Jerusalem (AFP)