Reports of Imminent New Settlement Plans. In the weeks and days leading up to the visit of President Trump to Israel and to Jerusalem Day 2017, there were credible and consistent reports of impending announcements of significant East Jerusalem-related settlement projects (notably, Givat Hamatos and Atarot), with such announcements reportedly set to coincide with the visit and the holiday.
Kerfuffle over Trump’s planned visit to the Western Wall. In the run-up to President Trump’s visit, there was a public altercation between the office of the Israeli Prime Minister and State Department officials in Jerusalem, regarding the President’s visit to the Western Wall. Reportedly, the Prime Minister’s office sought to coordinate the visit with the Consulate and to have Prime Minister Netanyahu accompany the President. Consistent with longstanding U.S. policy (that does not recognize Jerusalem as sovereign Israeli territory), U.S. officials in Jerusalem declined the coordination and rejected the offer to have Netanyahu accompany President Trump. Given that the Prime Minister’s office certainly knew in advance that this is U.S. policy, and given the speed with which the story of the State Department’s refusal was made public and spun as a diplomatic outrage, it appears that this was an entirely manufactured crisis, the goal of which was to exploit planning for Trump’s visit to pre-emptively corner his administration into adopting a new modus operandi in Jerusalem that, in effect, would represent a fundamental shift in U.S. policy.
No East Jerusalem settlement announcements. In the end, Trump came and went (May 22-23), and Jerusalem Day 2017 (May 24) passed, without any East Jerusalem settlement announcements. While it is unknown precisely why Netanyahu backed away from taking such steps, it seems likely that resolute international engagement that took place behind closed doors with the Trump’s administration – alerting the U.S president and his top advisors to the serious damage that these plans would cause to the ability to advance a meaningful Israeli-Palestinian process – played a role. Another factor likely was the evident determination of Netanyahu to avoid being seen by President Trump or his advisors as embarrassing the U.S. president by creating friction or controversy with surprises; indeed, Netanyahu was on “best behavior” for the duration of the visit, appearing to avoid doing anything that could undermine his opportunity to demonstrate his personal bond to an American president whose perceived unpredictability is still feared.
The visit to the Western Wall (and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher). The effort to leverage Trump’s visit to the Western Wall to force a shift in U.S. policy on Jerusalem did not succeed. Ultimately, Trump visited the Western Wall (and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher), unaccompanied by Netanyahu or any other Israeli official (at the Wall he did meet with the Western Wall rabbi). In doing so he became the first sitting President to visit the Wall (others did so before taking office or after ending their terms as president), and did so in a manner that left longstanding U.S. policy on Jerusalem intact. Notably, where such an action by Obama would have almost certainly been treated as evidence of his contempt for Israel and become a long-running story in both the Israeli and U.S. press, in the Trump era the media almost immediately let the story go, preferring to treat Trump’s visit to the Wall as unalloyed evidence of his support for Israel.
No shift of US policy towards Jerusalem. While Trump did not include any direct or indirect reference to the two-state solution (for or against) in his one major public statement (delivered in Jerusalem, at the Israel Museum), he likewise said nothing to indicate any change in U.S. policy regarding Jerusalem. With respect to Jerusalem, he spoke responsibly and respectfully about the deep Jewish ties to the city, and also recalled the importance of the city for all faiths, mentioning explicitly Jewish, Christian and Muslim attachment to their respective holy sites. It was a balancing act of giving Israelis dignified recognition of their equities, while citing those of others – without deviating from longstanding U.S. policies.
Jerusalem Day tensions & clashes. Clashes took place at the Damascus Gate during the annual “March of Flags” on Jerusalem Day — between Israeli security forces and Israeli, Palestinian, and non-Israeli Jewish demonstrators protesting against the march. As we wrote on previous years, the “March of Flags,” is an event characterized by crowds of Israeli youths parading through the Muslim Quarter (en route to the Western Wall), chanting racist and provocative slogans against Muslims and Arabs, and carrying signs making clear that Jerusalem only belongs to them. This year’s clashes were par for the course, the one significant new factor being the visible and highly publicized participation of American Jewish youth, one of whom had her arm broken by Israeli police.
Cabinet meets in the Western Wall tunnels. With the Trump visit successfully behind him, Netanyahu wasted no time in responding affirmatively to calls from the Israeli Right to demonstrate that the period of relative “restraint” in Jerusalem was over. Indeed, on May 28, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the “unification” of Jerusalem, Netanyahu took the seemingly deliberately provocative step of convening his cabinet in the tunnels underneath the Western Wall. Doing so sparked Palestinian anger, as the move is eerily and dangerously reminiscent of Netanyahu’s deliberately provocative decision in 1996 to open an exit to the tunnels, triggering deadly confrontations between Israel and the Palestinians. This has been a longstanding pattern with Netanyahu: when compelled to exercise “restraint” (for example, not announcing tens of thousands of new settlement units on Jerusalem Day), he immediately “compensates” by doing something inflammatory elsewhere in Jerusalem.
Cabinet approves new East Jerusalem projects. During its May 28 meeting in the Western Wall tunnels, the Cabinet took the opportunity to announce a five-year development plan for Jerusalem, which includes a series of decisions that aim to strengthen Israel’s hold on the city’s holy sites. These decisions include approval of a cable car connecting between Jerusalem’s First Train Station (located at the historic train station in West Jerusalem) and the Old City’s Dung Gate/the northern entrance to Silwan. As further detailed below, they also approved the construction of an elevator to the Western Wall together with an underground tunnel connecting the elevator exit in the Jewish Quarter to the Western Wall; a budget for improving sanitation for East Jerusalem; an additional budget for the “development” of facilities in the “Old City basin”; as well as plans for the development of the Western Wall esplanade and tunnels, among other more minor decisions.