Ever since President Donald Trump announced the United States’ decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the focus has been almost entirely on the global chorus of condemnation, the overwhelming votes against Trump’s proclamation in the UN Security Council and General Assembly, and the – so far – tiny handful of countries supporting the move.
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But while attention has largely been on these symbolic moves, something that escaped notice is that, in the aftermath of the recognition gesture, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accomplished one of his most cherished policy goals: Finally driving a massive wedge between the United States and the Palestinians.
When last Friday Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas published his Christmas message, announcing that the Palestinians “will not accept the U.S. as the mediator in the peace process, nor are we going to accept any plan from the U.S. side,” he could not have come up with a better Christmas present for Netanyahu.
If there is one goal Netanyahu has devoted his career to – from the days when he was a Zionist student activist at MIT in the early 1970s – it is trying to sever ties between the Americans and the Palestinians. And Abbas gave it to him, just like that.
The battle against the U.S. administration recognizing the PLO and entering official talks with it dominated Israeli foreign policy throughout the 1980s, when Netanyahu was a diplomat in Washington and at the UN.
Thirty years ago, when leaving the diplomatic service to enter politics full-time with the Likud party, Netanyahu timed his resignation to follow a meeting between then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz and PLO-affiliated Palestinian academics, to portray it as an act of protest against the talks. Between 1988 and 1991, as deputy foreign minister his brief was mainly devoted to appearing in the American media, advocating against U.S.-PLO ties.
As prime minister (initially from 1996-1999 and then from 2009), Netanyahu had to contend with the new realities of the post-Oslo era – and, of course, with the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, which openly supported a Palestinian state. But every engagement of his with the Palestinians was slow, grudging and through gritted teeth.
He has never given up on his stated intent to convince the world – and when Netanyahu thinks of the world, it will always be the world as it looks from the Oval Office – that the Palestinian issue is a sideshow and its leadership does not deserve an equal place at the table.
Netanyahu has never really cared about Jerusalem, beyond its symbolic significance. His government has not made any real efforts to solve the everyday problems of Israel’s poorest city. And even the much-beloved canard of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was never that high on his priority list. But the support for recognizing Jerusalem among Trump’s evangelical base, and the fact the U.S. president was willing to go ahead with the recognition as a low-cost (from his perspective) way of signaling he was keeping his election promises and showing how different he was from Obama, was a wonderful opportunity for Netanyahu.
He didn’t expect the world to suddenly fall in line with the U.S. president’s proclamation. Quite the opposite. He saw how much anger and opposition it would provoke, and therefore stoked Trump’s ego with encouragement and praise.
Netanyahu played the cards dealt to him brilliantly. The bigger the hoopla around Trump’s empty gesture, the bigger the insult to the Palestinians – an insult not delivered by Israel, but directly by the White House.
Trump himself made it clear the recognition of Jerusalem was not meant to prejudice the outcome of future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He even emphasized that the United States was not recognizing any specific borders of Israel’s capital. The United States hasn’t even changed its policy on not writing “Israel” in the passports of U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem, much less made any concrete steps for actually moving the embassy. But Netanyahu still declared that Trump’s announcement was an event of great historical importance, on a par with the Balfour Declaration and King Cyrus’ decree to rebuild the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
The Palestinians could have issued a low-key response, saying simply that no one, not even Trump, could decide the future of Jerusalem without their agreement. They could have kept their channels to the United States open and waited to see if anything would come of the much-vaunted Trump peace proposal.
Instead, they declared “days of rage” that quickly fizzled, and then effectively severed ties with the Americans by announcing they would be boycotting any scheduled meetings with administration officials.
No one has any illusions that this a favorable presidency as far as they are concerned. But, let’s face it, every single U.S. presidency has always been much more pro-Israel than pro-Palestinian. The “honest broker” label has always been a myth. The only reason the United States has been mediating between the two sides for so long is that it’s the world’s sole superpower and has been invested in the region for so many years.
There is always talk of another government stepping in as a potential mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. This is idle talk based on wishful thinking. No other country has the resources, the skilled and experienced diplomatic corps, the investment in the region and the credibility to become the brokers of the process.
The European Union is mired in a near-existential crisis, with Brexit cutting off one of its major members; its unofficial leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is struggling to build a coalition at home; and its unofficial leader-in-waiting, French President Emmanuel Macron, lacks the experience and attention span to devote himself properly. Russia has ulterior motives and does not really wish to help bring peace, just enhance its influence. China, which launched a Mideast conference this past week, is too far away – physically and mentally – to be much more than a bystander. And, most important, Israel can and will veto any other partner besides the Americans.
All of this may change in the future if successive administrations follow Obama and Trump’s example by retreating from America’s traditional role in the region. But it will take decades for a new player to grow into the role of ultimate patron of the diplomatic process. By the time that happens, Abbas and Netanyahu will no longer be on the stage themselves.
It is much more likely that a new U.S. administration will reassert itself within a few years. When that happens, the Palestinians will have to rebuild their relationship with Washington and, depending on the views of that administration, it may be a better one than they had in the past. But for now at least, they have given Netanyahu what he’s always wanted for Christmas.