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Jerusalem Recognition Could Spark Widespread Arab Unrest – This Time, With No End in Sight

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A Palestinian protester hurls stones towards Israeli troops during clashes at a protest against Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, near the West Bank city of Ramallah December 7, 2017.
A Palestinian protester hurls stones towards Israeli troops during clashes at a protest against Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, near the West Bank city of Ramallah DeCredit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN / REUTERS

President Donald Trump’s speech at the White House on Wednesday was, to a large extent, merely stating the obvious. Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel, and the United States was finally, belatedly, recognizing this.

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As far as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is concerned, these are diplomatic milestones and a substantial political achievement – arriving at a difficult time of police investigations and signs of instability within his governing coalition.

But is the right thing also necessarily the wisest thing? Trump’s move to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and begin moves to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem will be judged over two time frames.

>> Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinians protesting Trump's Jerusalem decision ■ Trump proves U.S. was never an honest broker | Analysis ■ Trump's recognition of Jerusalem may force Israel to pay an unexpected price | Analysis ■ Israelis, why are you celebrating? | Opinion >>

In the short term, will it lead to a significant increase in the level of violence in Jerusalem and the occupied territories? Also, will it trigger a crisis between the United States and Israel on the one hand and Sunni Arab states on the other – the ones with which Israel has close relations?

In the longer term, is Trump right in stating that the breaking of the pattern – in which the Americans tread carefully and insist on maintaining the semblance of being an honest broker – will force the Palestinians to leave their comfort zone and agree to more serious negotiations than they have conducted in recent years?

Palestinians protesting after U.S. President Donald Trump's announcement that he has recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, near Damascus Gate in the Old City, December 7, 2017.Credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters

Ahmed Majdalani, a member of the PLO’s executive committee and a close associate of President Mahmoud Abbas, told the Ma’an news agency Wednesday that the Palestinian Authority’s efforts following Trump’s speech will be conducted in several channels.

He said the PA would renew its efforts to be accepted as a full-fledged member of the United Nations; seek recognition of the Palestinian state by more Western nations; increase the activities of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in its efforts to promote a boycott of Israel; and renew its activities at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, pushing for the prosecution of alleged Israeli war crimes. Internally, Majdalani added, there would be nonviolent popular protest.

It must be noted, though, that the Palestinian definition of “nonviolent” tends to be rather elastic. It generally includes violent demonstrations that include the throwing of rocks and firebombs. Such a scenario could unfold in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in the coming days. The defense establishment will also be particularly attentive to any stirrings among the Israeli-Arab population.

The first test will come on Friday when Muslims attend weekly prayers at their mosques. The cold and rainy weather Thursday may dampen emotions, at least temporarily. The problem is that the weather is expected to improve by the end of the week.

Another question concerns the amount of attention actually being paid by the Arab world, and even the Palestinian public, to Trump’s announcement. The importance of the Palestinian question has declined in recent years, against the backdrop of turmoil elsewhere in the Middle East, but the word “Jerusalem” can still spark strong religious emotions.

This summer, Palestinians were successfully galvanized to protest after metal detectors were installed at the entrance to the Al-Aqsa compound (following a shooting attack that left two Israeli policemen dead). These demonstrations had a clear objective: for Israel to backtrack and remove the detectors.

In this case, though, it’s obvious the Palestinians can’t make Trump retract his words. This is a kind of “open crisis” with no objective or clear end point. Its fueling will depend mainly on the level of rage on the streets, which in turn will depend on the number of casualties. The Israeli army has long known that funerals in the occupied territories usually lead to more funerals. If demonstrations and attempted terror attacks end with many Palestinians dead, the area will catch fire and it will be harder to douse the flames.

As far as Israel is concerned, much will rest on the shoulders of the individual soldiers on guard duty or the checkpoint commander and his split-second reaction to a developing incident.

In the most recent wave of violence to hit Jerusalem and the West Bank in October 2015, it took a while before the army, police and Shin Bet security service recognized a change in the nature of the terror incidents, which became “lone-wolf” attacks rather than initiatives by organized terror cells.

A combination of improved intelligence, higher alertness and preparedness of soldiers and policemen at key flash points, and the Israel Defense Forces’ stubborn refusal to impose collective punishments, ultimately led to these attacks subsiding.

This time, in light of insights learned over the last two years, the system should be better focused and prepared for a confrontation if one does indeed break out.

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