President Trump announced that the U.S. was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and would move the American embassy to that city from Tel Aviv. Trump was careful to leave unspecified how much of Jerusalem he considered Israel’s capital, keeping open the possibility that all or part of the city outside the 1967 borders could become the capital of a future Palestinian state. Nevertheless, Palestinians and ordinary citizens throughout the Arab world reacted angrily, and the rulers of Arab nations issued pro forma denunciations of Trump’s decision. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government immediately took Trump’s statement as a green light to accelerate the bulldozing of Palestinians homes on West Bank lands that Jewish settlers want to appropriate for new or expanded towns that are regarded as illegal by almost all governments in the world, and which clearly are illegal under international law.
There are three significant questions that need to be answered. First, how much violence will Trump’s announcement provoke? Second, how will this decision affect Palestinians everyday lives, and third, will this matter at all for the prospects of a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians?
So far, there has been relatively little violence in Israel or the occupied territories since Trump’s announcement. Of course, there could be violence weeks or months from now, even a third Intifada. There also could be attacks against American, Israeli, or Jewish targets elsewhere in the world. However, it would be impossible to say Trump’s announcement caused those attacks. The U.S. and Israel have done more than enough to anger Arabs and their sympathizers. If and when peaceful demonstrations or murderous attacks occur they probably will be mainly responses to that long history or to new Israeli actions like the bulldozing of homes rather than to Trump’s announcement. Within a few months, this announcement will be seen as just one more episode in a long series of steps designed to impose American and Israeli preferences on the Middle East. Moving an embassy is a small measure compared to occupying land, overthrowing governments, and fighting wars in ways that kill far more civilians than soldiers.
The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the embassy move are symbolic and will not have tangible effects on Palestinians’ everyday lives. It is a blow to their dignity and to the hope, which, after years of stymied and insincere peace negotiations is really just a fantasy, of a Palestinian state with at least part of eastern Jerusalem as its capital. Palestinians suffer everyday from checkpoints, encounters with armed Israeli soldiers, and an economy so hobbled by enforced isolation and the ongoing seizure of land that most people are reduced to poverty by unemployment or confinement to the informal sector. The humiliations and despair Palestinians feel every day are accurate reflections of their situation.
If we look at the fifty years of history from the Six Day war to the present, we can clearly see an ever more ambitious Israeli effort to appropriate the West Bank and make a viable Palestinian state impossible. At first, Israeli Labour Party-dominated governments saw the Occupied Territories as bargaining chips in peace talks with existing Arab governments. Israeli Labour Prime Minister Golda Meir’s assertion, that the Palestinian people do not exist, reflected Israeli public opinion and shaped government policy. However, soon after the 1967 war the Israeli government permitted, even if at first it didn’t give encouragement or legal recognition to, Jewish settlers’ efforts to build homes and communities on Palestinian land. Eventually, the Israeli government invested billions of dollars in roads, utilities, and military bases to make those settlements viable, and subsidized Israelis who wanted to buy homes in the West Bank. The U.S. government until Trump condemned the settlements and never accorded them legal recognition, but also until the last month of the Obama administration vetoed UN resolutions condemning the settlements. And of course the U.S. gives Israel billions of dollars of aid each year that serves to cover much of Israel’s military budget, freeing up money for the West Bank settlement program.
The long and intensifying appropriation of the West Bank, and the ever more severe restrictions placed on Palestinians’ ability to live and work in Gaza and the West Bank, are the real context in which Palestinians will make decisions about when and how to oppose Israel’s occupation. Trump’s announcement makes U.S. support for the worst Israeli actions toward Palestinians explicit, while previous presidents endorsed the Israeli occupation with silence and money. Few people outside of America itself believed that the U.S. was a neutral arbiter in peace talks. However, some Palestinians thought the U.S. might have geopolitical reasons to push through a peace accord.
It now appears that the U.S. government, even before Trump’s announcement, had decided there is no reason to use its influence to press Israel to make concessions. That is the case for two reasons. First, Trump is unique among post-1945 presidents in his unwillingness to sacrifice domestic political considerations to sustain America’s hegemonic position in the world. If pleasing campaign contributors, extremist Jewish Republicans, and evangelicals requires him to humiliate Arab peoples and nations, he will do it, and his announcement on Jerusalem is an example of that. Second, key Arab governments have become ever more open in their willingness to ally with Israel even if that means acquiescing in Israel’s brutal occupation policies. Saudi Arabia, in its desire to counter Iran, is willing to choose Israel over the Palestinians. Egypt, of course, has for years been an eager and essential ally of Israel in walling off the Gaza Strip. In essence Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf governments, and Egypt have reached a judgment that their populations will not mount significant resistance to their abandonment of the Palestinians.
Netanyahu now is in an unassailable position internationally even as he is in danger of being removed from office because of his personal corruption and domestic opposition over economic issues. Neighboring governments, except for Iran, are giving Israel a pass to pursue its policy of converting the West Bank into Israeli settlements. The U.S. no longer will raise even token objections to Israel’s dismissal of Palestinian legal and human rights. So, in this context, Trump’ Jerusalem announcement will have no effect at all on peace talks. Previous actions by the U.S., neighboring Arab governments, and Israel ensured that no serious negotiations would occur. Palestinians would be fools to place any hopes in international negotiations for a state. Instead, their efforts must be directed toward winning full citizenship in the binational state that Israel in fact is now.