Analysis

The Jerusalem Powder Keg: How Much Will Trump's Gamble Cost and Will Israel Defuse It

Israeli defense establishment braces for violence after Trump's Jerusalem speech ■ Last wave of violence was quelled through restraint, which may be harder to do this time around

Israeli police officers stand guard as Palestinian women protest outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem Old City, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. Clashes between hundreds of Palestinian protesters and Israeli troops erupted across the West Bank on Thursday while demonstrators in Gaza burned posters of President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Israeli and U.S. flags.
Israeli police officers stand guard as Palestinian women protest outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem Old City, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

The American recognition of the city as Israel’s capital this week arouses mixed feelings. The declaration is historically justified, even when coming from the mouth of a repulsive individual such as President Donald Trump.

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Prime Minister Netanyahu chalked up a substantial diplomatic achievement this week, particularly since the American declaration paved the way for other countries to follow suit. These apparently include the Czech Republic and the Philippines, which may also move their embassies to Jerusalem.

This is also a political achievement for Netanyahu since none of his rivals or partners from any party to the right of Meretz dare warn of the results of such a decision. The hostile responses in the Arab and Muslem world, followed by the almost automatic panic among the international community, reflect more than the sensitive religious charge associated with any move made in Jerusalem. On a deeper level, these responses express the fact that Israel’s existence in the region is not accepted by Palestinians, perhaps not by all Arabs.

The efforts made by radio broadcasters, let alone by cabinet and Knesset members, to bestow a celebratory or official aura to the declaration sounded forced. First, because it’s quite clear that Trump’s considerations are unrelated to his boundless love for the eternal capital of the Jewish people. It seems that the president did what he did since it’s important for him to look better than all his predecessors in the White House (“they only talked, I did it”), and because he doesn’t like being told what he can and can’t do. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, because the potential implications of Trump’s declaration are already felt in the air here.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence stands behind as U.S. President Donald Trump holds up the proclamation he signed that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will move its embassy there, during an address from the White House in Washington, U.S., December 6, 2017.
Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

>> 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 >>

There is something almost condescending in the basic assumption made in Israel and the West, that Arabs and Palestinians are a huge and shapeless human conglomerate (“the street”), which responds to diplomatic maneuvers only with enraged, violent and totally uncontrollable reflexes. And yet, the chances that a widespread protest will erupt here, possibly ending in bloodshed, do not seem unlikely.

Hamas called for a protest intifada on Thursday, certainly as part of its competition with the Palestinian Authority in leading the unfolding of events. The defense establishment in Israel, which must prepare for the worst case scenario, has decided to move several army battalions to the West Bank and to reinforce police forces in Jerusalem. The next few days and weeks will show the results of Trump’s gamble, to which Netanyahu was a probable accomplice, at least by knowing of it in advance.

Jerusalem has been a powder keg historically, setting fire to the region on several previous occasions, from the Temple Mount riots in 1990 and the Western Wall tunnel disturbances in 1996 to the second intifada in 2000 (following Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount) and the short wave of terror attacks in the fall of 2014. This coming Saturday will coincidentally mark the 30th anniversary of the violent and harsh events which erupted under other circumstances, namely the outbreak of the first intifada.

Closures and sieges

The possibility of a violent outburst – in Jerusalem, the territories and possibly even among Israeli Arabs (it’s hard to imagine Sheikh Raed Salah missing an opportunity like this one to incite to violence), requires Israeli political leaders and the security forces to undertake determined yet judicious action. In a lecture at the Israel Democracy Institute on Wednesday, Chief-of-Staff Gadi Eisenkot described the manner in which Israel managed to contain the lone wolf attacks, which began in Jerusalem and the West Bank in October 2015. Eisenkot admitted that it took several months until a response was formulated to this new form of terror, which had no organizers or commanders. Subsequently, he said, a combination of detailed and precise intelligence, a determined response on the ground and a policy of abstention from widespread collective punishment managed to gradually reduce the level of flames.

Palestinian protesters taking cover behind dust bins during clashes with Israeli troops following a demonstration against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, near Beit El, December 7, 2017.
Abbas Momani/AFP

“We avoid imposing closures and sieges” he added. “It doesn’t serve the purpose of carrying out the mission, even if the acts of terror are infuriating and make our blood boil.” The chief of staff told of a senior Palestinian official who met Israeli intelligence officials shortly after things had calmed down somewhat. He said that this person had said that the violence didn’t deteriorate into a full-blown intifada two years ago since Palestinians in the territories saw that the Israel Defense Forces “were conducting themselves rationally, distinguishing between assailants and the general population.”

En route to the IDI, Eisenkot toured Hebron to view the IDF’s preparations for possible escalation. According to the data he was shown, there have been 56 Palestinian attempts to commit stabbing attacks in the city so far this year. Three resulted in casualties; the other 53 perpetrators were arrested en route to committing the attack, without the soldiers ever opening fire.

This compares to 39 attempted attacks, of which 17 were successful, in 2016. The sharp improvement is thanks to different arrangements at IDF checkpoints and new technology.

Eisenkot’s speech sounded like a blueprint for the way Israel should deal with the next wave, if it erupts. If there is violence in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem police branch and Commissioner Roni Alsheich will have to deal with it. (It will be interesting to see his relations with the Prime Minister’s bureau in this context, given the existing tension around Netanyahu’s investigations.) There is an experienced chain of command under the chief of staff in the territories, led by Central Command head Maj. Gen. Roni Numa and the IDF’s commander in the territories, Brig. Gen. Eran Niv.

Numa carried out army policies on the ground during the last terror wave. Niv knows the area well from his term as a battalion commander at the height of the second intifada as the officer who finally overcame the terrorists during the serious attack on the “worshippers’ trail” in Hebron in 2002, as a regional brigade commander in the West Bank. Previously, he was the operations’ officer of the Judea and Samaria division, under then-division commander Eisenkot, at a time when the army and the Shin Bet security service managed to block the wave of suicide bombers. This is a wise and prudent group of officers, which has already experienced and seen everything in the territories.

Part of what has changed in recent years relates to the reaction of the Israeli public. Eisenkot touched on this briefly in his lecture at the Democracy Institute, but it’s clear that controversy over rules of engagement and especially the Elor Azaria trial greatly impacted the public’s relationship with the IDF. A campaign is now required to assuage public anger, which was stoked by numerous politicians. Ultimately the chief of staff, the military advocate general, military judges and finally president Rivlin withstood the pressure. However, this will have consequences in the attitude of the extreme right towards the chief of staff, and certainly towards the president.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a conference at the foreign ministry in Jerusalem, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. Netanyahu said President Donald Trump "bound himself forever" to the history of Jerusalem by recognizing the city as Israel's capital.
AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

TV Channel 10’s investigative reporting program HaMakor had an interview this week with retired judge Zvi Segal, who was the driving spirit behind the rejection of the appeal of Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot and killed an incapacitated terrorist. In referring to the trial, Segal assailed the chain of command on the ground in Hebron during the incident. How was it that none of the commanders rebuked Azaria or yelled at him right after he shot the terrorist, who was lying on the ground, wounded and incapacitated?

“To my sorrow and regret there was silence,” said Segal. “The fact that none of the commanders or soldiers expressed their shock at this deed leads us to believe, God forbid, that someone thought that this was what should be done, and that’s very worrisome.” If the apathy shown by commanders and soldiers after the shooting indicates anything, he added, “a thorough overview is required of what is permitted and what is forbidden.”

When Eisenkot was on his way to give the lecture there was a temporary storm on the internet, created by right-wing tweeters and bloggers, who noted that the chief of staff was about to appear at “a meeting of the extreme left.” This is a constant method of creating McCarthy-like blacklists, that began with attacks on the New Israel Fund during the last decade. Every liberal or leftist organization is immediately labeled as “extreme left” and anti-Zionist, and an attempt is made to deter representatives of state institutions, from the state prosecution to the army, from cooperating with such dangerous traitors. Eisenkot ignored this pressure as did Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who appeared at the conference the next day. Both of them seem to have been marked by some right-wing media, who attack them every time an opportunity crops up.

Netanyahu's logic

In the midst of expanding corruption investigations against him and his associates, Netanyahu still holds a strong card in the public arena. This card derives its power from the trauma that still shapes political consciousness in Israel, more than a decade after it ended. This was the horrific wave of suicide bombings during the Oslo negotiations and the second intifada. It seems that Netanyahu is still perceived by many, to this day, as the only person with sufficiently adequate security and political experience needed to contend with a war or another murderous terror wave.

The lack of experience among his competitors Yair Lapid and Avi Gabbay (and on the right, Naftali Bennett), works against them. When on the scales one puts forbidden cigars and champagne bottles on one side with exploding buses on the other, there are many voters whose security anxieties are of a higher priority than the maintaining of orderly governance and a cleaning of the stables.

In Netanyahu’s frequent speeches, as with his video clips about “things you won’t hear about in the media,” shown on his Facebook page a lot recently, the two are almost identical – the prime minister emphasizes that the country is enjoying unprecedented prosperity. He describes Israel as a shining beacon of technology, science and military intelligence, with other countries striving to learn from it, thereby dispelling all the prophecies of doom about diplomatic isolation awaiting it due to its continued holding on to the territories.

Netanyahu’s arguments rest on three assumptions. First, that his chemistry with Trump will protect Israel from all harm. Second, that Israel’s confluence of interests with Sunni states and its reported behind-the-scenes security cooperation with them have pushed the Palestinian issue far down on their agenda. Third, that Netanyahu’s close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin have prevented Israel from clashing with Russia’s air force in Syria and will continue to help Israel protect its security interests up north.

This analysis was ostensibly bolstered by Trump’s announcement on Wednesday. But recent events actually pose huge questions about Netanyahu’s assumptions. First, Israel still doesn’t know for sure what Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative will look like or what compromises he will demand of Israel to allow him to say he advanced the peace process.

Second, recent reports on special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation show that he isn’t looking only into Trump staffers’ links with Russia, but also into moves they concocted with Israel prior to a UN Security Council vote on the settlements in the waning days of the Obama Administration. Shopworn accusations that Jerusalem runs Washington behind the scenes may well resurface with redoubled force now, especially since Trump’s peace team contains so many Jews.

Closer to home, Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem could reignite tension between Israel and the Palestinians, thereby affecting one of Netanyahu’s main achievements – the long months of security quiet with the Palestinians. Israel’s covert and open ties with Sunni states, especially Jordan and Saudi Arabia, will also be sorely tested by the vehement Arab opposition to Trump’s announcement.

Up north, neither Iran’s determination to consolidate its position in southern Syria nor the consequent airstrikes attributed to Israel has thus far provoked any visible Russian response. But if this escalatory trend continues, Israel and Iran may clash. Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer said in an interview with Politico this week that war in the north, especially in Syria, is becoming more likely. This raises doubts about whether Netanyahu’s relationship with Putin is doing anything to help Israel achieve its goals against Iran, and especially whether it’s helping to prevent war.