Netayahu Unshackled: New & Dangerous Terms of Engagement on Jerusalem

At present, we are seeing three disparate trends in Jerusalem, each of which, on its own, represents a powerful dimension of the conflict: the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif crisis, embodying the religious-symbolic dimension where it is most intense; the settlements issue, representing the territorial dimension; and Jerusalem-related legislation, that deals with the thorny issue of the status of East Jerusalem Palestinians, their material well-being, and their geographical connection to the city.

On the face of things, there does not appear to be any obvious connection between these three areas of concern. A deeper look discloses a compelling and deeply disturbing common denominator: a new approach from Prime Minister Netanyahu. Specifically:

  • In each of these three cases, Netanyahu has taken decisions and engaged in policies that he would not have dared to undertake a mere two months ago. Indeed, in some of these cases – like the metal detectors and the legislation related to creating a Greater Jerusalem municipality – he is now approving moves that he had specifically rejected in the past.
  • In recent analysis we attributed Netanyahu’s growing defiance (and not only on Jerusalem issues) to his growing deeply personal sense of imperial destiny, coupled with a growing domestic vulnerability. It now appears that an indictment of Netanyahu is likely, but whether he is or not is immaterial: he is acting as if he will be. In the past a vulnerable Netanyahu has fought for his political survival by galvanizing his base around provocative Jerusalem issues (e.g., his slogan that “Peres will divide Jerusalem,” adopted prior to the 1996 elections; his attempt to shut down Orient House a week before the 1999 elections). There is little doubt that he will be acting in a similar manner in the weeks and months to come.
  • All of this is taking place at a time when the level of international engagement challenging problematic Israeli policies is at a low ebb. The Trump Administration is far less willing that any previous U.S. administration to challenge Israel adversarially (if it is willing at all). A post-Brexit EU is fragmented as never before, key member states are dealing with their own elections, and many others are preoccupied with issues no less pressing than Israel-Palestine. In this context, Netanyahu is behaving as though he can get away with things with which he could not in the past, and thus far it appears that in most cases he is not wrong.
  • The broader political context is no more encouraging: the lack of the immediate prospect of a credible political process, growing uncertainty regarding the PA and its leadership, a situation in Gaza that can unravel in more ways that can be imagined. All of these contribute to a confluence of destabilizing developments. Jerusalem may be the most visible vortex of instability at the moment, but it is by no means unique.

In short, these seemingly disparate trends are not, in fact, isolated from one another, nor is crisis behind us. Rather, together they signal a confluence of destabilizing factors and should be understood as harbingers of further destabilizing developments to come.

In this beastly hot summer of 2017, Jerusalem is entering new and uncharted waters, and confronting a confluence of dangers unlike anything witnessed since 1967. There is no clear roadmap for where this will go, and no easy recommendations for how to avert disaster. However, at the very least, it possible to have a clear-eyed understanding of what is going on.