Benjamin Netanyahu; Mahmoud Abbas; Vladimir Putin (AP/Salon)

Trump's Jerusalem fumble: If the U.S. is out as a Mideast broker, who's in?

If the White House hoped to coerce Palestinians (and the world) into a peace settlement, it faces a rude awakening


Patrick Lawrence
December 17, 2017 11:00AM (UTC)

Considering President Trump’s sales pitch when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — “nothing more or less than a recognition of reality” — the administration’s poor grasp of reality in the two weeks since might be counted the very zenith of irony. Nothing seems to have registered in the way of consequences, intended or otherwise. And there is a fair amount of this around: Benjamin Netanyahu’s apparent psychosis swiftly proved even more severe than Trump’s. “Recognizing reality is the substance of peace,” the Israeli prime minister declared in an address to European Union leaders a few days after Trump’s announcement. That remark speaks perfectly well for itself without any comment from me.

Hubris has many offspring, and they are all present on this occasion. Washington and Tel Aviv (the capital of Israel until Jerusalem’s final status is properly determined) seem to have misread the evolving Mideast dynamic more or less across the board. They have overestimated their capacity to manufacture and sustain a new imperative. They have underestimated the Palestinian position, European commitments and the response of the umma, the greater Muslim community. And they have either misjudged or ignored — who can tell which? — the perfectly legible fallout likely to result from Trump’s extravagant presumption.

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This degree of insensitivity in Washington is worrisome, if not surprising. As this column has noted in the past, blindness and deafness are well-established in history as symptoms of great powers in their overripe stages. But there is another way to interpret the administration’s apparently out-of-phase understanding of the moment. Widespread objections to Trump’s Jerusalem decision will prove not to matter much: They are mere prelude to a  settlement of the Israel–Palestine question that the U.S. intends to fashion to Israel’s liking and then coerce all others into accepting. No such strategy can succeed, in my view. Of the various versions of reality now current, this would prove the very messiest.

There have been many popular demonstrations in Muslim communities, including in Tehran, since Trump defied the universally accepted convention on Jerusalem’s status. There have been rocket exchanges between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah has declared justice for Palestinians its new priority. How these ground-level conditions will evolve is no clearer now than it was when I wrote last week on Trump’s decision to recognize. But much has happened elsewhere, and conclusions seem at least within reach.

Let me take events in the approximate order of their occurrence. If psychosis is defined as a distant relationship with reality, the progress of the malady in Washington and Tel Aviv is evident in the chronology of the past two weeks.

*  *  *

Netanyahu was the first Israeli prime minister to visit Brussels in 22 years when he addressed European Union leaders five days after Trump’s Jerusalem announcement. By all evidence he was effervescently confident. “I believe that all, or most, of the European countries will move their embassies to Jerusalem, recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and engage robustly with us for security, prosperity and peace,” the scrappy Israeli leader declared.

See what I mean about hubris? I still cannot figure how Netanyahu could have so drastically misread his circumstance and the certain European reaction. To a one, the EU leaders shut him down as bluntly as protocol permits. Federica Mogherini, effectively the E.U.’s foreign minister, cited “international consensus” and told Netanyahu that Jerusalem could be Israel’s capital only when it was also declared Palestine’s capital as one aspect of a two-state solution. Lubomir Zaorálek, then the Czech foreign minister, put it in similarly plain terms when breakfasting with the Israeli leader: “It is impossible to ease tension with a unilateral solution. We are talking about an Israeli state but at the same time a Palestinian state.”

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What happened in Brussels? Two things, in my read.

One, Netanyahu put further strain on Israeli–EU relations — among the things he needs least. Ties have long been fraying in consequence of the Israelis’ relentless drive to establish illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Products made in settlements must now be labeled when sold in EU markets; there is growing sympathy for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or BDS. The rejection in Brussels assumes its full meaning when read in this context.

Two, there is the larger matter of trans-Atlantic ties. These have been fragile since the Obama years, but Trump has made them worse with his withdrawal from the climate pact and his threat to tear up the Iran nuclear accord. The EU just sent Trump a signal, too. While he gave Netanyahu enough rope to hang himself in Brussels, when the Europeans spoke against Netanyahu they spoke against Washington, too.  

Two days after Netanyahu’s appearance in Europe, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation took an important step at an extraordinary session in Istanbul. When it declared its recognition of East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital it mended a long-running rift between members who accept borders drawn prior to the 1967 Six-Day War and those who reject the legitimacy even of those borders. Do not miss the logic here: To recognize East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital is to acknowledge there is a West Jerusalem that is Israel’s.

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At the same time, the OIC declared that the U.S. can no longer be accepted as a participant in the Mideast peace process. Toward the end of the session, Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, asserted the same in a one-hour speech. “We do not want America,” he said. “After these decisions, we will not accept them. … As long as they act like this, we do not want them.”

What happened in Istanbul? Again, two things — or maybe one big thing.

The OIC’s position on East Jerusalem appears to open the door to a renewal of the peace process that Muslim nations could support. At the same time, the “honest broker” mythology is at last exploded. This is now on paper. The question becomes, Who would mediate any new negotiations between Israel and Palestine? Who would the Palestinians and the umma at large accept?

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I can only note the apparent candidates, having no useful knowledge of likelihoods. Abbas nominated the U.N. when he spoke in Istanbul, but this is problematic twice. One must consider the idea of U.N. mediation cautiously, as the organization’s procedures have long been prone to Western, particularly American, manipulation and corruption. There is a long record of this. Equally, what does Abbas mean with his “As long as they act like this …”? Does he leave the door open to a reversal? The prospect has already been noted in some press reports. Watch this space.  

The other candidates are the Europeans and the Russians. France convened an ambitious peace conference last January, we ought to recall, and 36 foreign ministers, including then–Secretary of State John Kerry, attended. But the initiative has not found much traction, plainly. Jean-Yves Drian, the French foreign minister, floated the thought of EU mediation when Netanyahu was in Brussels; President Emmanuel Macron seemed to second it, at least tacitly, when the Israeli leader subsequently flew to Paris. Plainly the impulse to intervene is still alive, but it remains unclear how far it can be taken.

The Russian case is interesting. Moscow has for years tried intermittently to assume a role in the Mideast settlement process. While it enjoys good relations with many Muslim nations and (not to be missed) also with Israel, its efforts have never been to much effect. But conditions have changed. Moscow’s success in preventing the collapse of government in Damascus, as many have noted, has lent the Russians a new prominence in the region. Last April, in an apparent effort to engender a new, more substantive phase in the Mideast peace process, Moscow indicated it would be willing to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital so long as East Jerusalem went similarly to the Palestinians. To be noted: This is now the OIC’s position, which appears to leave open the possibility of Russian-mediated negotiations. “The possibility”: One cannot go further than this for the moment.

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*  *  *

On Dec. 12, Heather Nauert, the State Department spokesperson, gave one of her standard press briefings. It was the day after the Europeans stonewalled Netanyahu in Brussels and the day before the OIC session in Istanbul. Events were kinetic. A reporter asked: Did the administration think the Jerusalem announcement and moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to the Holy City would have “a political consequence of making it impossible for the U.S. to mediate in a peace process?”

Nauert’s reply was a little involved but very interesting. It came in two parts.

“When we look at the peace process over the past many decades,” Nauert began, “we have not really — despite the efforts and despite all the good work of many administrations, Republican and Democrat — have failed to make changes to the situation over there.” End Part 1.

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“And so the president looks at this as a new way of potentially being able to move the ball, to advance the ball, to try to get the Palestinians and Israelis to come together,” Nauert concluded. “So we’re hard at work at that. We have not given up. We are still optimistic. We certainly know that some things can become complicating factors, but we look forward to sitting down and trying to advance the peace process.” End Part 2.

Part 1 is honest enough, though I stumble at “all the good work of many administrations.” Part 2 is also honest: One does not doubt the Trump administration has not given up and remains optimistic and expects to sit down to craft “the ultimate deal,” as Trump has promised. The problem with Part 2 is the disconnect noted at the start of this column: Where is reality in the perspective Nauert described? How does the optimism and the not-giving-up and the hard work fit with the other events just reviewed? How do U.S. diplomats work hard toward a negotiated settlement when many interested parties have just told them they are no longer welcome?  

I have noted my two possible answers, neither appealing. One, the administration’s version of reality is a hopeless mismatch next to the Mideast’s new realities. Trump and his policy people are simply unable to acknowledge and act upon the dynamic the president set in motion when he recognized Jerusalem. They cannot hear the voices of Palestinians and many others in the region. They do not understand what happened in Istanbul, or the implications of what happened in Brussels. By all appearances this may be the case.

At the same time, it is difficult to accept that the Trump administration could be so deluded or incapable or both. There may be no delusion or incapacity at work in Washington. When Nauert said the administration is working hard, she meant it: The White House — with or without the State Department, it is hard to tell — is structuring a peace plan that it intends to coerce the Palestinian leadership into accepting. Failing that, it will find Palestinians who will go through the motions of accepting it. Abbas’ objections, the unified resistance evident in Istanbul: these are of no account. By dint of sheer power this will get done. In the long term, of course, this would prove simply another kind of delusion.

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I always follow the comment thread appended to these columns. This time I will be interested to see how readers interpret the events of the two weeks since Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem. This is an important moment. Which way events turn in coming months will be of considerable consequence in the Middle East and for those who shape U.S. policy and exercise U.S. power.


Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is an essayist, critic, editor and contributing writer at The Nation. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”. Follow him on Twitter. Support him at Patreon.com. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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