Commentary | 20 December 2017

US President Donald Trump rolls the dice on Jerusalem

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

President Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital is a bit like the fast food he apparently consumes every day.

For Israel and the Jewish people, it is a sugar hit. It recognises their deep historical, religious and emotional ties to Jerusalem, and the reality of Israeli control of the city. It also reassures them against international efforts to delegitimise those ties.

But when you chew through the declaration, it is not as substantial as it appears. It changes nothing on the ground, nor does it actually preclude some part of Jerusalem becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state, as well as the capital of Israel.

Trump alluded to this in his statement:

"We are not taking a position on any final status issues including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved."

This qualification was of little salve to the Palestinian leadership, however, for whom Trump's announcement has caused serious indigestion.

After Trump was elected, they tried to build a relationship with him. They hoped to leverage what seemed to be his genuine interest in brokering the "ultimate deal". Now Trump's declaration has left them, once again, looking impotent.

Publicly they are protesting that the United States can no longer serve as an impartial mediator. Privately, they will be scratching their heads about what to do.

They don't have a lot of options. With the peace process moribund, the leadership has been encouraging countries to unilaterally recognise Palestinian statehood. Many have done so. But like Trump's declaration on Jerusalem, this is symbolically important, but changes nothing on the ground.

Some Palestinians have talked of turning their struggle for national rights (the two-state solution) into a struggle for civil rights (the one-state solution). That struggle could well begin among Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, whom feel discriminated against by Israel, and alienated from the Palestinian national leadership.

But in the past the Palestinian leadership has been loath to adopt such a strategy, not least because it would mean giving up their jobs and privileges as national leaders.

The current leadership would also be wary of any return to violence. The last time that happened, after the peace process collapsed in 2000, the Palestinians were its biggest losers. Blood was spilled on both sides, Israel imposed harsh security measures, the Palestinian economy was destroyed, and support for the peace process among ordinary Israelis was gutted.

Ultimately, however, the Palestinian leadership may not get a choice in the matter. There have already been protests in Palestinian towns and cities that have led to violent confrontations with Israeli security forces.

There is also the matter of how Trump's declaration plays out in the wider Middle East. The Palestinian cause has a lost a lot of currency in the region, but Trump's declaration will test whether Jerusalem still resonates as an Islamic issue.

Terrorist groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda, who have been on the back foot lately, will waste no time trying to find that out. The announcement is also a gift to Iran, who will use it to embarrass Sunni Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, which have quietly been building their strategic ties with Israel.

There is a view that the outrage prompted by Trump's declaration will soon die down, and this may well happen. The current tumult in the region has given people and princes many more immediate things to worry about. But events in the Middle East rarely go to plan or prediction.

Events that appear marginal sometimes develop a momentum of their own: in 2011 protests begun on Facebook toppled governments in the region. Crises that appear to be ending suddenly, spiral out of control. The seeds of future conflicts often take months and years to germinate.

For almost two decades now the old order in the region has been in flames. Indeed, Trump's declaration is a fitting one for the era. He has tossed years of American policy and practice into the bonfire.

This would be justified were it part of a considered plan to revive the peace process. The early signs suggest that it isn't.

Not long after Trump's declaration, Dina Powell, a deputy national security adviser and a key member of Jared Kushner's peace process team, announced her resignation. It will come into effect next year and the administration has spun it as unrelated to the announcement on Jerusalem, but the timing suggests otherwise.

There is great virtue in rethinking old assumptions about how to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, not least because as Trump noted, old approaches have failed. But this is not what he is doing. Like the casino magnate that he is, Trump is simply rolling the dice.