Judging by the reaction to Donald Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, you would think that the President had just declared war against the entire Muslim world. For stating that the US would ‘officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel’ Trump has been accused of destabilising the Middle East, of fomenting violence for years to come and of destroying any chance for peace.
Some have criticised him for pandering to his evangelical base, a plausible charge, though he would hardly be the first President to frame policy with domestic support in mind. But while there are plenty of reasons to dislike Trump, and to decry his lack of joined up thinking on foreign affairs, his pronouncement was justified
For starters, Jerusalem actually is the capital of Israel. It has been the beating heart of the Jewish nation for millennia, ever since King David chose the city as his capital some three thousand years ago. It is the focal point of Jewish liturgy and prayers and is mentioned over 600 times in the Hebrew Bible.
Just as importantly, it is the seat of government and the place where almost all Israeli ministries and the Supreme Court are located. If you believe that each sovereign nation has the right to choose its capital, then that same right cannot be denied to Israel. Yet despite this, a fiction has persisted for decades that the words ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘capital’ cannot be uttered in the same breath.
True, the Palestinians also see Jerusalem as their capital but nothing in the Trump declaration bars them from sharing the city, or at least the eastern part of it. Indeed, a deal on Jerusalem was integral to the offers of statehood made by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert in 2000 and 2008, offers decisively rejected by Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas. When the Palestinians are ready to negotiate in good faith with their Israeli counterparts, there is no doubt that final status talks will once again involve the status of Jerusalem as a shared city.
The charge that this declaration is ‘incendiary’ is wide of the mark. Of course, there was always going to be a chorus of Palestinian objections and irresponsible talk of a third intifada. Naturally, Abbas was going to threaten the end of the peace process, though it is fanciful to think that we were on the cusp of a breakthrough without Trump’s intervention.
But if anything, the response on the Arab street has been rather muted. There have been some violent clashes in the territories, and demonstrations elsewhere, though there is evidence that the beefed up media presence in the West Bank has actually encouraged rioting from Arab hotheads.
More to the point, the last six years has taught us that the concerns of many in the Arab world are more parochial: what has brought people marching on the streets is not sympathy for the Palestinians but despair at a range of local socio-economic issues: the high price of food, low living standards, youth unemployment, inadequate social services, endemic corruption and political autocracy. A hatred of Israel is much less effective at diverting popular anger with bad government.
In any case, the notion that violence is an inevitable consequence of Trump’s words flies in the face of morality and logic. It sends a message to the Palestinians that they lack responsibility for their actions, as if they were children with only one outlet for their anger. Denying the Palestinians agency infantilises them and suggests that they are incapable of responding to provocation in a non-violent manner.
Yet colonial style infantilisation and appeasement have been defining features of western foreign policy for decades. Instead of calling out the Palestinians for their historical revisionism, incitement against Jews and incessant rejectionism, the West has rewarded violence and terror with incentive after incentive. The predictable result is a stalemate in the peace process.
For decades, the Palestinians have condemned the Zionists as usurpers with no right to a homeland, and viewed Israel’s control of Jerusalem as the ultimate symbol of theft and perfidy. The Trump declaration is a welcome rejoinder to these mendacious views.