Jerusalem & the Trump “Peace Plan”

We agree with the general assessment, put forth by many observers, that the Trump Administration likely neither aspires nor intends to put forward a comprehensive peace plan. Rather, the White House more likely has in mind a series of more limited measures and policies. the primary goal of which is clear: to create sufficient forward movement – or the optics of forward movement – to facilitate an alliance against Iran comprising the United States, Israel, and key Sunni-Arab states. Such an alliance cannot be effectively created without neutralizing the Palestinian issue to the extent that it will no longer be an impediment to open, cooperative relations between Israel and key Sunni-Arab states. At the same time, the experience of the past year and half indicates that the US is acting in accordance with a self-imposed restraint: there will likely be no serious clash with Netanyahu or any proposals that violate any of Netanyahu’s political or ideological red lines, whether with respect to denying the reality of occupation, rejecting the 1967 borders as terms of reference, or discarding the-two state solution.

In this context, we offer the following Jerusalem-related observations:

Jerusalem is very much on the current agenda. Given the recent flurry of diplomatic activity – from the Kushner/Greenblatt visit to the region to the recent Abdullah-Netanyahu summit – we believe it is likely that the subject of Jerusalem is already figuring prominently in discussions. We likewise believe that respective positions and red lines emerging on the issue of Jerusalem – already hinted at in a small number of public pronouncements – will have an important, perhaps decisive role in whether an American peace plan will be released at all.

The reaction to the embassy move confounded Trump Administration assumptions. Given the Sunni states’ unified, consistent and coherent rejection of the Trump Administration’s policy shifts thus far on Jerusalem, as articulately led by Jordan, one might have anticipated that previous Trump Administration assumptions about what the Arab world will accept vis-à-vis Jerusalem in a “peace plan” would have been seriously reconsidered, if not abandoned. Even assuming Sunni states are so eager to create the anti-Iranian “grand coalition” that they are ready and willing to cut loose the Palestinians, it is evident that Jerusalem will not let them. The responses of Sunni states so far testifies to a palpable fear that Arab public opinion will not tolerate moves that appear to be an abandonment of Arab and Muslim Jerusalem.

Netanyahu & the US  still hope/believe Sunnis States acquiesce on Jerusalem. At the same time, the growing self-confidence of the Trump Administration, the chaos in Palestinian domestic politics, the eagerness in parts of the Arab world to take on Iran and their growing frustration with the Palestinian leadership, all may well conspire to lead the Trump Administration to the conclusion: Jerusalem need not be an obstacle to the publication of an American plan. It would appear that the attempt to achieve consent to just such a move figures prominently in the US team’s current visit to the region, and Netanyahu’s summit this week with King Abdullah.

Jordan is feeling the pressure (but so far is holding firm). Moreover, the economic crisis in Jordan has likely tempted some to believe that an already vulnerable Jordan will be more willing to be “flexible” in regard to Jerusalem. Indeed, King Abdullah recently stated that Jordan was under great economic pressure to cede Jerusalem, and that “we are approaching a crossroads”. Reports from the Netanyahu-Abdullah meeting this week (a meeting bookended, perhaps un-coincidentally,  by Abdullah’s trip to Saudi Arabia and the visit of Kushner and Greenblatt to Amman) suggest that Jerusalem was a central topic of discussion. Statements from the Israeli side suggest that Netanyahu sought to reassure Abdullah that Jordan’s red lines on things like preserving the status quo would be protected, and that Jordan’s historic role under the Israel-Jordan peace agreement as custodian of Jerusalem’s Muslim sites would be maintained. Reports from the Jordanian side suggest that Abdullah was not assuaged, with the King reasserting Jordanian red-lines that go far beyond maintenance of this status quo. Given Jordan’s central role in defining and articulating the Arab position regarding Jerusalem, it appears that – for now – the unified Arab position rejecting any American move that would appear to undermine the Palestinian claim to East Jerusalem remains intact. As reported in the Jordanian press, Abdullah not only did not embrace assurances offered by Netanyahu, but, in views that explicitly contradict those of the Israeli prime minister (and the Trump Administration), he:

reaffirmed that the only way to achieve peace and stability in the region is by reaching a two-state solution and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the 4 June 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital, living side by side with Israel in peace and security. The subject of Jerusalem, His Majesty reiterated, must be settled as part of final status issues on the basis of the two-state solution, underlining the importance of the holy city for Muslims and Christians, as it is for Jews, and reiterating that the holy city is key to achieving peace in the region. The King affirmed that Jordan will continue upholding its historical role in safeguarding Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, in accordance with the Hashemite Custodianship.”

The Palestinians are completely out of the loop. In the wake of formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the opening of the embassy US embassy there, the US believed that the Palestinians were merely venting their anger and, in due time, would calm down, accept the new “reality,” and re-engage with the US as it has done in the past. The fact that the Palestinians have not relented – refusing to normalize relations with a White House that is systematically reneging on the core understandings upon which the peace process was established – reflects two things. First, no Palestinian leadership can maintain any credibility with its own people if it is seen as complicit in giving up Jerusalem (for a Palestinian leadership already suffering for a serious credibility crisis, this is doubly true). Second, the PA’s position has been bolstered by the response of Arab states, which until now still remain unified around the view that Arab states will not accept policies and proposals on Jerusalem that are rejected by the Palestinians. The Trump Administration may well still hold out hope that if they can get Sunni acquiescence to the American plan it will force the Palestinians to choose between returning to the peace process (on new terms dictated to it by the American plan), or being relegated to abject isolation and political irrelevance. However, that Sunni acquiescence has not yet been achieved, and the hoped-for “damned-if-they-do vs. damned-if-they-don’t” choice has not been imposed on the Palestinians. Ironically, the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem has become one of the Palestinians few “assets” standing in the way of the attempted marginalization of the Palestinian cause.

Other issues are in play, but Jerusalem is key. This analysis is, by its very nature, an over-simplification. Other issues – the right of return, territorial issues, settlements, Gaza, Palestinian unity, PA succession etc. – will all play significant factors in both the substance of any proposed US plan and the decision to release it. However no issue rivals that of Jerusalem in the way it resonates throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, giving Arab leaders much less room to maneuver than on other issues. If Jerusalem is a component of the plan, the plan’s release will be very much in doubt.

As throughout its millennia-old history, Jerusalem refuses to be ignored.