Contrary to dubious online suggestions, Einstein did not say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Nonetheless, there is some truth to this idea in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A certain orthodoxy in thought has brought about precious little except for the perpetuation of violence and a persistent deadlock.
Orthodoxies are by no means necessarily pernicious. I do not object to standing on the shoulders of giants, but I would want to verify that the giants are sufficiently tall to qualify as such. In this case, my fear that the orthodoxy is less-than-wise was confirmed when I picked up a recent issue of the Economist, a temperate magazine if there ever was one. “Donald Trump’s recognition of the holy city acknowledged reality. Nevertheless it was unwise,” read the description of one of three Israel-themed pieces on the print edition’s contents page.
I stared at the words dumbfounded. What bad situation benefits from disregarding reality? Cancer? Domestic abuse? Bankruptcy? Climate change? Surely, there must be an extraordinary line of argument to support a digression from facts.
The apologia for this curious statement first traced the generic position on Jerusalem back to the 1993 Oslo Accords, according to which the city ought to be one of the final issues resolved. Notwithstanding the hurdle that Abu Mazen is not unequivocally committed to Oslo, this could be a rightful concern in the canon of the aforementioned orthodoxy. However, only two outcomes are possible for Jerusalem: either Israel keeps the city’s western part or all of it. Trump’s announcement does not endorse the latter scenario, as Shimon Peres’ former foreign policy advisor, Einat Wilf, explains. Trump was careful to point out that no borders are being drawn. The issue of Jerusalem, despite some initial fears to the contrary, remains unresolved.
The Economist then moves on to its tripartite main argument. First, it criticises the deal-making abilities of the American president, claiming that he gave a concession to Israel without anything in return. This argument is echoed by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, too. A qualification for this position is that an American commitment, while certainly useful, is not in itself international law. More significantly, it is not a peace deal. The precise advantage of such a “concession” to Israel is therefore unclear at this moment, especially when spokespeople from the State Department decline to confirm whether Jerusalem is inside Israel at all. Have we truly witnessed a significant policy shift from Obama’s Cairo Address, in which he called for Jerusalem to be a “secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims”?
At this moment, when the head of the Israeli Labour party prioritises a united Jerusalem over a peace deal, the notion that any part of the holy city will be surrendered appears particularly distant. But that the city’s western part will cease to be Israel is a particularly damaging fiction, which only strengthens the worst (and most unrealistic) inclinations of the Palestinian movement. These sentiments should not be accommodated on principle alone, but they are also counterproductive in practice as they steer the various Palestinian factions away from sensible terms. That pre-1967 Jewish holdings in Jerusalem are up for negotiations is simply a non-starter. The American reinforcement of this very basic idea is Trump’s great chiddush, and if some acceptance of this reality can be generated, his announcement will secure a single – though crucial – item on a lengthy checklist.
The second point focuses on the notion that Trump “has further discredited the already feeble Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and all those who argue that Palestinian aspirations can be met by negotiation rather than violence”.
Verily, Abbas is on thin ice with or without Trump. In 2014, a year when Gazans suffered massive casualties in Operation Protective Edge, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was more popular than Abu Mazen. In 2015, two-thirds of Palestinians wished for the president’s resignation, though this failed to stop him from continuing an already grossly exceeded term with near identical ratings.
It should be noted that these two factions, Hamas and Fatah, are the Palestinian leadership. Both major political forces have strong authoritarian tendencies. So when John Kerry called Abbas “the best peace partner Israel could hope for”, it was difficult to decipher if the then-secretary of state was praising the president (who in 2008 rejected the potentially best deal possible) or insulting his people.
In terms of violence, while there are periods of relative quiet, they tend to be short. Though the PA’s security cooperation with Israel is important, Abbas has not been an unconditional pacifist. With Gaza troubles tragically becoming an almost unremarkable fact of life and the “Knife Intifada” or habba just settling, the reaffirmation of peaceful Palestinian voices is somewhat of a moot point. There has yet to be a decade in the history of modern Israel without a major military confrontation, to say nothing of asymmetrical warfare.
Third, the Economist claims that Trump embarrassed Israel’s newfound Arab allies, who have finally begun warming to the Jewish state due to a mutual hostility towards Iran. Interestingly, the Economist in November was much more amenable towards Team Trump’s Middle East efforts, though it could not forego mentioning the three “orthodox Jews” in the task force, whose bias in favour of Israel it cited as a negative. Mild antisemitism aside, the magazine asserted the following:
Whatever the [Trump] administration produces, Saudi Arabia is likely to support it. Mr Kushner has struck up a friendship with Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince. Though the prince’s foreign-policy record is not widely admired, he seems to have convinced Mr Kushner that he can help reshape the Middle East in ways that suit America. At Mr Trump’s behest he summoned the octogenarian Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to Riyadh earlier this month and urged him to embrace the American plan.
Clearly, there is a degree of editorial flexibility – or lack of consistency – here. Nonetheless, that Arab and/or Muslim states will now be tempted to line up behind the Palestinians is a real possibility, and it is raised by former PA official Ghaith al-Omari. There are some signs of this taking place at the UN General Assembly or the OIC, but these are mostly symbolic and impotent measures. On the other hand, Washington Institute executive director Robert Satloff noted that Saudi concerns appeared muted after Trump’s announcement.
That the initial outrage from the Arab world might be sabre-rattling without much substance is a distinct possibility. Neighbouring Arab countries are not necessarily famous for their excessive concern for Palestinians, on its own Trump’s declaration will have little practical effect that might force their hands, and the spectre of Iran will continue to hover over them.
The Economist’s final kick to recognition is the suggestion that Trump’s true goal here is pandering to the pro-Israel elements in his voter base, i.e. the Evangelicals – a point which, once again, corresponds with Zakaria’s take. This argument is also not without its qualifications, however. Consider a survey overseen by Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Shibley Telhami. Telhami writes:
[The poll] found that 59 percent of Americans said they preferred that Trump lean toward neither side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In contrast, 57 percent of Americans, including most Republicans, said he is in fact leaning toward Israel. Our poll also shows that 63 percent of all Americans oppose moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, including 44 percent of Republicans.
How about the Evangelical Christians whose support has been critical for Trump, and who are known to support declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. embassy there? Two-thirds of Evangelicals say Trump’s policy is already leaning toward Israel—a proportion that’s even higher than that of the rest of the population. Even on moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the support is hardly overwhelming: While 53 percent of Evangelicals support the move, 40 percent oppose it.
If Trump is a rational actor here, the domestic political gains are not earth-shaking.
American acknowledgement of the power dynamics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could ultimately push the Palestinians towards a more amenable position, and that may prove beneficial. Despite initially gloomy reactions, perhaps it is right for Trump to promote the relatively uncontroversial Israeli retainment of West Jerusalem. It is quite possible that the previously reigning view on the conflict overestimated the Palestinian leadership’s clout abroad and their statesmanship at home. Perhaps it erroneously viewed the former as static and the latter as set on an evolutionary trajectory. Whatever the case, the peace process unquestionably screeched to a halt. At this point, there is no need to close our minds to something new, even if the strength of the jolt lies more in provocation than substance. For a change, Trump might have made a fact-based decision.