Hard Questions, Tough Answers (12.11.17) - In the aftermath of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses Arab and Muslim reactions to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem; some interesting responses from independent-minded Israelis and others; what everyone is fighting over and what "Alpher's Jerusalem"looks like; what it might look like if the Palestinian chief negotiator declared, “the two-state solution is over” and Palestinians begin to seek Israeli citizenship in a one-state solution.


Q. Can Arab and Muslim reactions to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital be characterized as relatively moderate and controllable? Or is this just the beginning of an escalating angry response?

A. At the time of writing, five days after the declaration, this is the key question in the Middle East. Thus far, the reaction on the street in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel’s Arab sector has been angry and violent but limited and contained. The same holds for the Gaza Strip, where a few rockets fired at Israel produced a proportional response and Israel’s timely unveiling of its detection and destruction of yet another Hamas attack tunnel had a deterrent effect. In Jordan, too, Palestinian reaction is under control.

The angriest rhetoric against Israel has come from Turkey’s President Erdogan. But thus far he has not touched the two countries’ diplomatic relationship. Still, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation will meet in Turkey on Wednesday and the Arab League in Egypt on Saturday--meetings that could generate a more structured and persuasive strategic response toward the US and/or Israel.

The European reaction has comprised near-unanimous condemnation, with right-ruled Hungary and the Czech Republic the exceptions. At the time of writing, PM Netanyahu was in Brussels to make his case before a hostile gathering of European Union foreign ministers.

So the answer to the question is: it’s too early to tell. All we need is for one angry Arab demonstration in the West Bank to get out of hand, producing numerous casualties, in order to ignite the spark of a new intifada. Alternatively, the Middle East could within the week return to its previous regional agenda of civil and tribal warfare from Syria to Yemen to Libya and of Iranian and Russian penetration of the Levant. This would push the Jerusalem dispute to the back burner.


Q. What are some of the more interesting responses you have encountered from independent-minded Israelis and others?

A. Among the widespread approval for America’s long-delayed recognition expressed on the Zionist center, right and even center-left were two attempts by center-left intellectuals to see in Trump’s statement a potential point of departure for a positive new peace process. Prof. Shlomo Avineri of the Hebrew University pointed out in Haaretz that Trump had refused to address the issue of borders and would support a two-state solution if the two sides to the conflict support one. “A responsible Palestinian leadership that aspires to an agreed solution and does not suffice with belligerent rhetoric could seize upon these formulae,” Avineri stated. It should welcome Trump’s recognition of the two-state solution and propose that Jerusalem be the capital of both states, he added.

Former IDF chief of intelligence Amos Yadlin, now heading the INSS strategic think tank (full disclosure, I was the director of its immediate antecedent, the Jaffee Center), wrote in Yedioth Aharonot that “we [now] confront the potential and the chance to advance a different political process under different conditions. . . . Trump’s speech encourages a reappraisal of assumptions and paradigms that guided the process for a quarter of a century. . . .The speech demonstrates to the Palestinians that in contrast to what they may have thought, time is not in their favor.”

I beg to differ. First of all, these Israeli reactions assume the existence of a rational and cohesive Palestinian and Arab world leadership that takes an unemotional and “un-Islamic” approach to Jerusalem as its point of departure. But that is not the case--not in Ramallah, certainly not in Gaza, and not even in Riyadh. At this point the Palestinian leaders refuse to meet Vice-President Pence when he arrives soon in the region and refuse to meet with or talk to Trump. If, as Yadlin asserts, time is indeed not in the Palestinians’ favor, their leadership has nevertheless not concluded that it must compromise radically before all is lost. Rather, it is toughening its stance.

In this regard a prominent secular Turkish academic wrote me predicting that the leaders of Muslim majority countries will now “use their media to direct public opinion to focus on Jerusalem instead of the state of the economy, their corrupt practices, their mistreatment of their citizens” and that this approach “in the end will create a major upsurge of anti-Americanism . . . and anti-Semitism.”

Secondly, these Israeli reactions also assume the Trump declaration will from herein serve as a kind of foundation stone for a new process. But past experience proves otherwise. Remember the 2004 George W. Bush letter to Ariel Sharon welcoming Gaza withdrawal as “real progress” toward a solution, accepting that Israel will retain the settlement blocs and rejecting the right of return of 1948 refugees to Israel? That letter never constituted the basis for subsequent (2008, 2013-14) final status negotiations or US mediation. And Bush, unlike Trump, at least had a strategy for advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The Trump Jerusalem declaration, which is all ego and campaign promises, not strategy, will almost certainly suffer the same fate. Nor is Trump’s readiness to accept two states if the sides agree much of a bargain: presumably he knows they are incapable of agreeing.

Finally, there is the Netanyahu government, which has pocketed Trump’s gesture, though not before comparing it pompously to the Balfour Declaration, the creation of Israel in 1947-48 and even Cyrus the Great’s edict allowing the Jews to return from exile. Now Netanyahu can proceed to plan new East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods and new West Bank settlements.

There is no peace process. Trump’s declaration will remain meaningful only if, against all odds and expectations, his peace team comes up early in 2018 with a surprisingly even-handed initiative that begins by balancing last week’s declaration with a Jerusalem capital for the Palestinians. That initiative would have to be backed by the resolute determination of the administration to apply heavy pressure and sanctions, and galvanize the application of Arab pressure and sanctions, to the two recalcitrant leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Don’t hold your breath.


Q. What is everyone fighting over? What does “your” Jerusalem look like?

A. Jerusalem may be the Zionist capital but it is not a Zionist city. A majority of its population is Arab Muslim and ultra-Orthodox Jewish. It is one of the most poverty-stricken cities in Israel. Many Arab parts of it are dirty and as underdeveloped as third world cities. Entertainment and dining opportunities are far less available in the Jewish part on the Sabbath than in other Israeli cities. In its eastern parts, Jerusalem is the only Israeli city partitioned by a huge wall. During most hours of the day, traffic on the main road from Tel Aviv and the coast is hopelessly clogged.

Nor is Jerusalem a full-fledged capital. The entire Israeli security establishment remains in and around Tel Aviv; there are no plans to move it. Even the Ministry of Agriculture is in Tel Aviv. Secular and moderate Orthodox Jews continue to leave.

At one point in my professional life, I worked in Jerusalem for five years. I commuted from the coast. I found some wonderful places, opportunities and people in Jerusalem, including in the Arab east of the city. Some impressive projects are underway to develop the city’s infrastructure. But I wouldn’t live there.


Q. Suppose, as Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat has declared, “the two-state solution is over” following Trump’s declaration, and Palestinians should now seek Israeli citizenship in a one-state solution. What might such a dynamic look like?

A. Interestingly, Erekat’s sentiment (which, knowing Erekat, is almost certainly empty political posturing) might be welcomed by both the post-Zionist far left and the far right in Israel, albeit in each case for totally different reasons. The post-Zionist left simply wants a bi-national state. Jabotinsky-style Ideological right-wingers like President Rivlin want all of the land and all of its inhabitants, with some sort of mysterious agreed constitutional mechanism that miraculously leaves the state Zionist yet democratic.

But the ruling right-religious mainstream would undoubtedly mount endless obstacles in the way of West Bank Palestinians seeking Israeli citizenship. In other words, it would deepen apartheid rather than give West Bank Arabs the vote in a bi-national country. In this sense, Erekat’s statement spotlights the fractious and conflicted reality that describes where the mainstream is taking Israel, whether that reality looks like apartheid or a bi-national state.

The growing number of Palestinians interested in pursuing Erekat’s declared one-state goal would presumably start with Jerusalem. The united city’s Palestinian population, numbering nearly 40 percent of the total, has the right to vote in municipal elections. With fringe exceptions, it has until now boycotted those elections as a political protest. Were the Ramallah leadership now to encourage Jerusalem Palestinians to “assimilate” and vote for a Palestinian nationalist ticket, Jerusalem could easily end up with a dominant Arab faction in its city council and conceivably with an Arab mayor.

Here we must recall that, like the Arab population, the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem are not Zionists. Together the two groups would constitute a municipal majority.

Would such a development force the hand of Israel’s large Zionist majority nationally and oblige it to take seriously a two-state partition plan? No, or at least, not yet. Already, gerrymandering legislation is afoot to detach a large portion of Jerusalem’s Arabs from the city, and attach surrounding Jewish settlements to the city, in an effort to forestall the effects of a Palestinian decision to vote in municipal elections.

Then too, we should keep in mind that the Oslo process has created in the West Bank a large public sector of Palestinian Authority officials, educators and security personnel. Their salaries are paid with funds from Europe and the US. They, with their dependents--all told, hundreds of thousands--have developed a vested interest in the status quo. Presumably they would have little interest in embarking on an extremely risky one-state venture. Netanyahu is banking on this.

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