Opinion

With Jerusalem Burning, President Trump Needs to Engage

To de-escalate the crisis, junior officials can't hope to replace visible, vocal interest at the highest levels of the White House. But the president is silent and his secretary of state, mysteriously absent

Israeli security forces watch Palestinian Muslim worshippers pray outside the Lions' Gate entrance to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City. July 23, 2017.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt’s arrival in Israel today is a welcome sign of stepped-up U.S. diplomacy to help deescalate the tensions and violence that have been surging over the past week. But for him to succeed, he needs help from his boss. 

Not every situation calls for high-level involvement. In quieter moments, when negotiations are underway, or even in periods of managing the conflict between negotiations, diplomacy led by envoys, or even a hands-off approach, can help facilitate progress. But in moments of crisis such as the current one, the President or the Secretary of State must lend their weight to the initiative.

Crises can develop slowly, with only a subtle transformation from a series of disconnected incidents to an emergency situation. But disturbances surrounding the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif are always prone to rapid deterioration.

The current one began ten days ago with the murder of two Israeli police officers by Arab citizens of Israel, who used guns smuggled into the holy site to conduct the crime. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response was reasonable in security terms - a temporary closure of the site to restore order and search for other hidden weapons, followed by deploying magnetometers to prevent a recurrence - and he resisted calls for more fundamental changes in the status quo, such as permitting Jewish visitors to engage in prayers at the site. 

Palestinian worshippers sit outside Jerusalem's Old City after Israeli police barred men under 50 from entering the Old City for Friday Muslim prayers. July 21, 2017.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

The tipping point was the decision of President Abbas and the Waqf authorities, who ostensibly answer to Jordan but are heavily influenced by Palestinian politics, to treat the magnetometers as a unilateral change in the status quo. This claim resonated with the Palestinian public, which has engaged in both peaceful and violent protests on a daily basis ever since, resulting in the deaths of three protesters in areas where violence was occurring. Statements from other Arab leaders warning of the dangers an escalation in Jerusalem posed for their own relations with Israel, and Abbas’ claim to have suspended security coordination with Israel, have added to the sense of crisis.

When a similar deterioration occurred in October 2015, then-Secretary of State John Kerry met with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Berlin and traveled to Jordan to meet separately with King Abdullah and President Abbas. His intervention, which had the full support of President Obama and included dozens of hours of phone consultations and numerous public statements including clear condemnations of terror, helped produce a concerted effort by all three sides to lower their own rhetoric and restrain those who sought to escalate, and an agreement to install security cameras at the holy site to monitor for violent activity and violations of the status quo.

While Kerry’s intervention did not ultimately lead to the installation of the cameras (the Jordanians got cold feet and abandoned the plan months later in the face of Palestinian opposition), and was not able to stem the wave of Palestinian terrorist stabbings and car ramming attacks that seemed triggered by events at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and was fueled by inciting rhetoric claiming it needed defending, it did help restore quiet to the holy site itself.

Greenblatt will find the crisis has already mushroomed beyond issues relating directly to the holy site. The vicious terrorist murder of Yosef, Chaya, and Elad Salomon at their Shabbat dinner in Halamish understandably constrains the flexibility of Israeli political leaders. And the security incident at the Israeli Embassy in Amman, which resulted in the deaths of two Jordanians and the wounding of an Israeli, add to the tension between Jordan and Israel, two of the parties whose cooperation is most essential to a de-escalation.

A candlelight vigil in the settlement of Halamish, where a Palestinian stabbed three Israelis to death. July 22, 2017.
GALI TIBBON/AFP

It is precisely because of these complications that an American envoy, no matter how empowered by the President, is unlikely to succeed on his or her own. U.S. interventions to help deescalate are far more effective at the Presidential and Secretary of State level, because only the relevant heads of state and equivalent figures on the Israel, Jordanian, Palestinian, and Arab sides can take the necessary decisions.

Almost by necessity, a successful U.S. intervention will result in the parties climbing down from positions they have taken earlier in the crisis. Kerry’s initiative got Abbas to stop talking about the threat to the al-Aqsa Mosque, got King Abdullah to agree to security cameras (at that time), and got Netanyahu to reiterate explicitly that that status quo he was committed to did not include Jewish prayer at the site. All sides were able to take decisions that may have been unpopular or subject to domestic criticism in part because of the visible signs of U.S. support and/or pressure.

In the current case, magnetometers, despite being a commonly used security measure at public venues, including holy sites, around the world, may have to be removed due to the political symbolism of them being operated by Israelis, as Shin Bet and Israeli military officials have reportedly argued internally from the beginning. 

A Palestinian boy runs from tear gas during clashes at the Qalandiya checkpoint, between Ramallah and Jerusalem. July 23, 2017
ABBAS MOMANI/AFP

But this step cannot be taken unilaterally. Palestinian statements about threats to the status quo, which fuel violence, need to end. And since the magnetometers were a legitimate security response to terror conducted from within the mosque, Jordan and the Palestinians have an obligation to propose other measures, perhaps to include implementation of the security cameras agreement, to ensure it cannot be repeated, and see to it that the Waqf carry them out.

Visible and vocal interest at the highest levels is the best leverage the United States has to help achieve such an agreement. So President Trump’s silence on these events, even as he continues to speak and tweet daily on the Russia investigation, Obamacare repeal legislation, and White House staff changes, undercut his Administration’s diplomatic efforts. Likewise Secretary Tillerson’s complete and mysterious absence from the Israeli-Palestinian arena.

Low-key calls and visits by more junior officials can prepare the field, but they cannot replace high-level engagement. Only such interventions can persuade regional leaders of the U.S. interest in a de-escalation and enable them to peg their own difficult decisions to that factor.

Daniel Shapiro served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2011 until the end of the Obama Administration. He is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro