12/8/17 Reactions to the Trump Announcement on Jerusalem

If there is one place President Donald J. Trump would clearly win an election today, it’s in Israel. Even in left-leaning Tel Aviv, most of the ‘word on the street’ is — “Finally, someone did it! After all, Jerusalem has always been our capital”. The legal and diplomatic history of Jerusalem are of little interest to most people here, all of whom have grown up with the knowledge that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and almost none understanding of why all of the world embassies are located in Tel Aviv. Of course, to many prideful Tel Avivans (most of whom hardly ever venture to Jerusalem) the answer is obvious — i.e., Tel Aviv is a nicer place to work and live in, (but that’s another matter).

The reactions to Trump’s announcement and his decision to move the American Embassy have been interesting. I participated in a TV panel on i24News one Wednesday night with Yair Hirschfeld, one of the architects of the Oslo accords. I had expected him to be very critical of Trump’s announcement. In fact, he was not. Instead, Hirschfeld said he believed while this might be a dangerous move, this might be an opportunity to restart talks with the Palestinians, having more realistic expectations. Hirschfeld noted that as the Palestinians have turned down previous proposals, including (according to him) one developed with the Saudis and the Egyptians, maybe now they will understand they cannot keep turning down offers — a theory I heard many times, during the night the announcement was made.

Of course, the Palestinians do not agree. Another panelist Ahmad Ghanain, member of the Palestinian National Council stated that this was the end of the role of the United States in the peace process. He called the declaration a dictation by Trump, and that Trump’s pronouncement put an end to the “deal of the century”.

The more extreme the criticism of Trump’s announcement, the more Israelis defended it. Most Israelis do not understand why everyone is being so critical the President’s statement, and are deeply incensed by comments like those of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, who declared that Trump has “created a ring of fire around the Middle East”.

By doing what? By officially recognizing the fact that Jerusalem — i.e., the place which every US President since Richard Milhous Nixon visited — is the capital of the state of Israel? An important clarification the White House was very clear that the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital had no effect on any other issue relating to Jerusalem including the future boundaries of Jerusalem. Those most angry with the agreement seem not to have heard this very important provision.

Certainly, instinctive support for Trump’s decision is generally tinged with a realization that everything relating to Jerusalem is not normal. It is not a normal city. The smallest perceived “provocation” surrounding anything related to Jerusalem has, in the past, resulted in a wave of violence, often leading to many deaths. The IDF has reinforced its presence in the West Bank, as a result of Trump’s announcement. In addition, the US State Department has issued a series of travel warnings.

The Trump administration seems to be convinced that whatever violence might follow the President’s announcement regarding Jerusalem will be short lived. Israelis remain slightly more concerned — remembering that the second intifada broke out after the late former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount (albeit only one of the contributing factors), costing over 1,000 Israeli lives and taking a few years to end.

President Trump’s declaration on Wednesday was no doubt popular with his base. Moreover, instead of the latest revelations regarding his campaign’s involvement with Russia, fulfilling his campaign promise to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel dominated the news for at least two or three news cycles. In Israel, where the news has been all about the investigations into Netanyahu, as well as other Likud officials, Trump’s announcements had the same effect. However, in a few days the news will move on and return to the burgeoning scandals on both sides of the Atlantic, while the day-to-day lives of Israelis and Palestinians will remain unchanged and Jerusalem, which Israelis have always hailed as their capital, and the “City of Gold” (Yerushalayim shel zahav) continues to be Israel’s poorest city.