If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem
On the Politicization of the Holy Land, Breakdown of the Arab-Israeli Peace Process, Anti-American Waves, and Impending Violence
Few tracts of land incite the passions like Jerusalem. For the faithful, the holy land is the literal site of their religion’s defining moments, from prophets ascending to heaven to making their covenant with God. So long as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam endure, billions are viscerally attached to the land. For these reasons, contention and violence have been a constant in Jerusalem’s history. Claims to the city have been triggers for war throughout history, from the Crusades to the perpetual Arab-Israeli conflict. Against this backdrop, of religiously-inspired fervor and passion, we return to a question that has been tinged in blood since the city’s creation: Who shall have control of Jerusalem?
Both the Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their eternal capital, but the stakeholders are not restricted to the borders of Israel and Palestine alone. From the Vatican to Amman, religious and political authorities around the world have a legitimate stake in Jerusalem’s status. The fate of the holy land resonates in the East and the West. Across the Muslim world in particular, any incident in Jerusalem that touches Islamic holy sites excites Muslims populations worldwide and triggers mass protests. In the past year, dispute over prayer within al-Aqsa Mosque stoked protests from London to Ankara to Jakarta. Religious sensitivity and fervor have made the entirety of Jerusalem a powder keg, threatening to ignite rounds of violence across the globe.
It is in this environment the Trump Administration has decided to unilaterally recognize Israeli claims to Jerusalem and provocatively relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem — discarding with generations of precedent, policy, and negotiation in favor of political theater.
Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the official American policy concerning Jerusalem has for 70 years rejected unilateral claims to the holy city and instead called for negotiations to decide its fate, whether East Jerusalem will become the Palestinian capital (in an east-west division) or if the original 1947 United Nations Partition Plan would be implemented (creating an international regime for Jerusalem). The latter has been negated by dual Israeli-Palestinian claims, alongside the building of settlements, and the former will be doomed by this new American imposition that undermines a two-state solution and instead adopts a maximalist Israeli position outside the framework of negotiations. The consequences of President Trump’s unilateral decree will not be restricted to the territory of Jerusalem or even the future viability of a two-state solution.
Where Jerusalem incites and inspires those passions, conflict and violence will be an inevitability. Anti-American sentiment will explode across the Muslim world, empowering hardliners and extremists, who will find new support among millions who feel their city of God — and indeed their religion— is being defiled and stolen. To extremists, from al Qaeda to the Islamic State, the jihadi narrative of a conspiratorial ‘Zionist-American War against Islam’ will emphatically be realized and used to radicalize new souls who will perpetrate violence across the East and the West. This Anti-American wave will target both Israel and the United States, spilling innocent blood and sacrificing innocent lives for a move that is nakedly against the national interest and one that quite literally damns peace in our time.
The (Doomed) Two-State Solution and Third Intifada
Not only does the Trump Administration’s move preempt negotiations, it delegitimizes the very principles of negotiation, dialogue, and peaceful settlement. It distorts the reality on the ground, deterring future concessions and in effect perpetuating the conflict. For the Israeli, he will now question why any concessions should be made if even the most contentious issues are won outside the negotiating table. Why should Israel be made to sacrifice, to concede? Why should land swaps, free movement within the Palestinian territories, or the right of return even be up for negotiation if the power brokering these talks has adopted the Israeli position unilaterally — for nothing in return?
Conversely, Palestinian moderates will be totally marginalized, if not defeated. For decades, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas embraced the principle of negotiations and dialogue — in contrast to the militancy waged by Hamas— and now his approach has been delegitimized in the extreme. Within the Palestinian camp, hardliners will be empowered, to reject negotiation and peace in favor of violent struggle. In the face of Jerusalem’s loss, the Palestinian people will see negotiations as a futile exercise, one that has allowed Israel’s illegal settlements to progressively expand and, in the process, swallow territory claimed by Palestine, de facto ending even the viability of a two-state solution.
In the aftermath of President Trump’s declaration, the Palestinians are expected to be party to a process that disempowers them, to participate in a ‘peace process’ facilitated by a biased power in the United States, who in an instant renounced any claim to being a fair broker? To the Palestinian people and the Muslim world, the perception will be that the United States has just ‘stolen’ Jerusalem from them, that they are little more than a conduit for Israeli interests. With the land beneath their feet gone, a future Palestinian state becomes little more than an idealistic talking point, some dream in the distance that will never be realized.
Peaceful conflict resolution requires a fair process that builds trust and promotes dialogue between the parties. For over 70 years, the official policy of the United States has been to be a fair broker, an interlocutor that promotes negotiation between the two sides and, with it, peace. President Trump’s unilateral decree has doomed that proposition, poisoning the well and discrediting the United States as a neutral party, one that can facilitate and promote peace.
“It shouldn’t be moved prior to agreement by the parties to the conflict as part of a comprehensive agreement ending their conflict. Even seemingly minor changes of Jerusalem’s status quo — either in fact or in law — have historically had the impact of sparking violence.” — Dylan Williams, J Street
President Trump’s defense for the move has been the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, legislation which requires presidents to either relocate the embassy or issue a national security waiver every six months, and his campaign promise to relocate the embassy. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama issued those national security waivers throughout their tenure in office, refusing to undermine a two-state solution and abrogate our obligations as a fair broker for Israel and Palestine.
But in the 2016 election, then-candidate Trump played politics with the issue. He pledged to the move the embassy in a speech to AIPAC, an American lobbying group who is aligned with the Israeli right and hardline settler movements. As a campaign promise, designed to appeal to American evangelicals and right-wing Jews, the action is by design a politicized (if not radical) act, breaking with generations of precedent for the sake of petty politics. Herein, politics has prevailed over America’s national interest, in national security and foreign relations. Its ramifications will be felt for generations, isolating the United States within the Muslim world and fueling violence and terror worldwide.
In the absence of negotiations, there is only violence. History tells us this. In recent years, we have seen tensions over Jerusalem spurring violence and unrest, in the surge of knife and car attacks since 2014. But the Second Intifada is our guide, offering insight on the potential explosion of mass violence. In 2000, Ariel Sharon provocative visit to Temple Mount, made to assert Jewish claims to the holy site, triggered protests that turned to mass riots. Those riots were the breeding ground for the mass violence that followed, within a pernicious cycle of violence. Security forces suppress protesters, injuring and killing them, and protesters in turn retaliate against police and armed forces. Successive retaliation and escalation morph a single protest into an intifada, shifting from spontaneous protest to orchestrated militancy. The Second Intifada roiled Israel and Palestine for five years, killing thousands and further fracturing the Arab and Israeli peoples.
Untold death and destruction was caused by an offense that is minor by comparison to the Trump Administration’s unilateral decree. In the Palestinians’ view, the prospect for a real and lasting peace through negotiation has just been shattered. Abbas’s embrace of the peace process stands delegitimized and the Palestinian dream of East Jerusalem is no more. In this climate — following a decade of unrest, war, and terror in the Middle East — violence feels imminent, that this new development has the potential to explode into a third intifada. As the Arab-Israeli peace process breaks down, the only alternative becomes extremism and violence.
International Furor and Explosions of Anti-American Rage
President Trump has touted his ‘deal of the century’ for Arab-Israeli peace. For all intents and purposes, that deal is dead. The basis for this deal was regional cooperation, incorporating Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt into the peace process and in turn pressuring the Palestinians to accept American-Israeli impositions. Now, vehement opposition within the Palestinian camp will preclude any concessions and, with it, substantive negotiations. Jerusalem’s loss is a fatal blow for the Palestinians and, if a third intifada indeed breaks out, the basis for Arab-Israeli peace will shift from the negotiating table to the battlefield.
For the United States, the damage to our foreign policy and national security will be most severe in the sphere of foreign affairs. Since the 2003 war in Iraq, the Middle East’s political landscape has been radically transformed by regional trends of: Endemic sectarianism, proxy war, militant groups conquering territory (e.g. Islamic State), and the Arab Spring. The region’s sectarian alignment — following the Sunni-Shia schism per the Saudi-Iranian rivalry — has seen Sunni powers move closer to Israel in their mutual opposition to Iran. This was the basis for Trump’s peace push, to incorporate those powers in the Arab-Israeli peace push, in the process removing a historical source of antagonism and division in order to create a bloc to counter Iran’s Shia axis. That bloc will now face an enraged Muslim public, who will turn their ire on the United States and any power seen to be complicit in Jerusalem’s ‘theft.’
Going forward, the Arab Spring will trouble the minds of kings throughout the Sunni kingdoms, in particular America’s steadfast allies Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Although the Arab Spring’s revolutions were (mostly) unsuccessful, mired by political regression and widespread violence, the precedent of mass mobilization and protest against authoritarian regimes was established by that epochal events. Autocrats like Mubarak or Ben Ali were deposed and the region saw with its own eyes the powers of an engaged people. A precedent was set. Indeed, in 2010, protests against poverty and corruption quickly morphed into protests against the regime. In this climate, those millions of Muslims taking to the streets against Israel’s claim can in an instant morph their calls into demands for the regime’s ouster, in particular those powers who are seen as cooperators and collaborators with the Americans and Israelis.
In the near-term, we can expect relations between our Muslim partners to cool. Leaders like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his brand of political Islam will find political advantage in opposing the United States, whose ties with Turkey have been already been frayed, and defy the new American policy. Others like King Abdullah of Jordan or King Salman of Saudi Arabia will be wary of (openly) coordinating with the Trump Administration and inflaming their people’s passions, which can then be directed against their regimes.
Isolation and withdrawal by our Muslim partners is a near-certainty. American interests and assets in the region, ranging from counter-terrorism to intelligence to human rights, will be hindered. Anti-Americanism will provide a constraint on our Muslim partners, who will ultimately have to answer to their people. Alienating those powers harms the national interest. America cannot go it alone. More dangerously, provocative acts like this will erode our influence in the region, which will in turn be swallowed by Moscow and Tehran.
The proliferation of anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world will pose a direct threat to the American people. Policies like the so-called Muslim ban and now recognizing Jerusalem as a sole Israeli possession are fodder for extremists, who use these religious affronts to recruit new militants and legitimize their struggle against the ‘crusaders,’ who wage their war against Islam. If we are to combat radicalization and terrorism, a program of provocation and discrimination directed toward Muslims is not just self-defeating but self-destructive. Such policies do not exist in a void. And their progeny is waves of terror and death, creating its own cycle of violence that has mired us all since 2001.
Today, the war in Afghanistan rages on. Tens of thousands of American personnel have been deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Insider attacks are a reality for our troops. In places like Afghanistan, President Trump’s provocation will exacerbate the Taliban’s never-ending insurgency and give them new bodies to perpetrate those heinous insider attacks.
In sum, the Trump Administration’s policies are alienating our allies and emboldening our enemies. We are weakened by it. And ultimately, if things continue on their present course, we will be defeated by it.
O Jerusalem! (In Memoriam for Peace in Our Time)
Politics over country. Politics over God. That has become the American refrain in 2017. In its short tenure, the Trump Administration has feasted on division and distraction. President Trump’s unilateral decree that dispossesses the Palestinians and bestows all of Jerusalem to the Israelis is true to that cause. But unlike any policy he has undertaken before, this move cannot easily be undone. It is a radical step, one that obliterates 70 years of precedent and, more gravely, delegitimizes the very principle of negotiations — of nonviolent conflict resolution — in Israel and Palestine. The two-state solution is now in tatters because of it.
No man can profess to be a seer, but the dynamics at play indicate violence in the extreme, history repeating itself evermore. But we are entering new territory. In the immediate aftermath of Jerusalem’s status, Days of Rage will engulf the Muslim world. Millions will take to the street, and let the world bear witness to their rage.
That city which has inspired and incited man’s passions for millennia will again incite and inspire — fueling new rounds of violence and death, in the East and the West.
“If Jesus returned today we would have to crucify him quick in our own defense, to justify and preserve the civilization we have worked and suffered and died shrieking and cursing in rage and impotence and terror for two thousand years to create and perfect in man’s own image.” — The Wild Palms (a.k.a. If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem); Faulkner