Is Trump’s declaration merely symbolic? Perhaps, but symbolism does matter. And in the Middle East, few symbols are bigger than the City of David.
"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem," sang the Israelites, "may my right hand forget her cunning, may my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth." That was approximately 2,600 years ago during the Babylonian captivity, a memory preserved in Psalm 137. To most Israelis, US president Donald Trump's decision to declare his country's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was simply a late awakening to a most basic fact.
To the rest of the world, Trump's actions, as always, were reason for hyperbole and haranguing. The spokesman for the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said the US was “plunging the region and the world into a fire with no end in sight,” and the Palestinian envoy to the UK, Manuel Hassassian, added, “He is declaring war in the Middle East, he is declaring war against 1.5 billion Muslims." As can be expected, criticism has been sharpest from Muslim states and with a little more diplomatic decorum from Europe, Russia, and China. In addition, analysts of all stripes have been all over print and the airwaves predicting great upheaval in the Middle East and the derailment of decades of patient US diplomacy.
It is unclear, however, how much of the breast-beating is warranted. The primary argument against Trump's declaration seems to be that it will cause unrest in the Middle East. Yet when in the past several decades has something not caused unrest in the region? What is the guarantee that there will be no violence in Gaza if the United States desists from the announcement? Can anyone even distinguish the chaos due to the US declaration from the upheaval, tumult, riot, violence, or disturbance that are routine to the region, and at that point, does it really matter?
The countries of the Levant are swirling in a whirlpool of chaos, instability, and terrorism that has been largely of their own making for almost a decade. Arab street decries any move by the international community that may benefit Israel as detrimental to peace and stability, implicitly encouraging a complete blockade and destruction of the Jewish state.
It must also be remembered, as Tzipi Hotovely recently alluded to, that Israel has constantly lived in a state of undeclared war. Any more unrest that is promised by the terrorists of the Middle East will hardly be noticed in the quotidian deadly exchanges with Hamas, Hezbollah, the occasional Syrians, and other armed thugs.
Another point of criticism of the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital has been that it violates international law - Jerusalem is seen as occupied territory and any change of demographics on disputed land or official recognition to it is illegal. However, this fails to recognise that the United States has merely recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel but has not defined the boundaries of the city - that is still left to the Israelis and Palestinians in future peace negotiations.
One might argue that Washington's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel muddies its role as an impartial arbitrator. Yet that ship, at least in Arab eyes, has already sailed - no one views the Great Satan as a neutral judge. What Arabs and Israelis both count on is the diplomatic, economic, and military wherewithal the United States is capable of bringing to bear upon the side that violates a peace agreement.
What will Trump's announcement have on the other states in the region? Iran's leader Ali Khamenei has warned of dire consequences but it would be an unusual day when the Islamic Republic does not threaten to wipe Israel of the face of the earth. Trump's announcement may force the Palestinians to show strength through terror and this might fray relations between Fatah and Hamas that had only recently been mended with much difficulty. However, Jerusalem does not recognise any Palestinian player as a genuine partner for peace - translation: dial down the terrorism - and there is no missed opportunity here.
Ankara has threatened to cut off diplomatic ties with Israel but relations have already been frigid between the two American allies after the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010. Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab states Israel has peace treaties with, have also not reacted positively to the news. Yet it is not sure what either Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or King Abdullah will or can do as neither country has had a particularly good past with the Palestinians.
The real question is about Saudi Arabia's reaction to this all. Traditionally, Riyadh has stoked the Palestinian crisis periodically and refused to recognise the Jewish state. Recent rumours, however, have left several commentators murmuring about a clandestine US-Israel-Saudi Arabia alliance to contain Iran's expanded influence in the Middle East after a successful turn of events in Iraq and Syria. The whispers became even louder after Trump tacitly supported a great purge in the Saudi royal family by the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman. This has always seemed far-fetched to me and Washington's recent dousing of Saudi ambitions in Lebanon - Saad Hariri's removal - leaves one thinking that there are still some kinks in that plan.
More importantly, there were even rumours that Mohammad bin Salman had secretly flown to Israel to meet with its leaders to discuss a Palestinian peace plan, a normalisation of relations, and Iran. Such delicate ventures may be beyond the crown prince in view of his streak of recklessness on display in dealing with other crises such as Yemen. While there is indeed a temporary alignment of interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia, one bête noire does not a rapprochement make.
It is also unlikely, if such a triumvirate ever existed, that the topic of Jerusalem would not have cropped up. In that case, despite Riyadh's official dismay at the US decision, it will be interesting to see what it actually does. Yet what about the impact on US ties with its other allies in the region such as Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates? Regardless of what State Department mandarins think, this administration has made it quite clear that American allies around the globe have not done enough. It is not improbable that Trump prefers to deal with Riyadh alone and coerce the "smaller" allies with the former's help.
Could the Jerusalem declaration be part of Trump's personal "charm?" The president is enveloped in legal battles and his administration has yet to be fully staffed or retain any member for a decent period. Trump had also promised during his election campaign that he would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US embassy to the city. The Jerusalem declaration not only distracts his opponents from the domestic quagmire but also delivers on a campaign promise, thus reinforcing his image to his base, perhaps, as the anti-politician. It is also possible that Trump is using his declaration as a bargaining chip to force the Palestinians to the negotiating table, the message being that there is much to lose by holding out.
Ultimately, the issue is more religious than national as Hassassian's statement clearly reveals. As the Oslo Accords and the failed Camp David Summit in 2000 demonstrated, Jerusalem is not a negotiable issue for either side. The Arabs want to control their holy site, the Haram al-Sharif; the Jews remind us that when that was the case before 1967, they were not given access to their holy sites. More than geopolitics, it is this facet that will shape the reaction of the Arab states to American recognition of Jerusalem as the Israelis capital - it would be political suicide to even sit idly by as the United States moved its embassy to the disputed city.
It is altogether a different matter to discuss Palestine's right over Jerusalem or even its own existence, given that it has never existed as a state - before 1967, the West Bank, along with Jerusalem, was occupied by Jordan and the Gaza Strip by Egypt. The Palestinian government Cairo set up in the Strip, ironically, was not recognised by Jordan.
Israel's reaction to Trump's announcement has so far been muted but the bubbling joy underneath the uncharacteristically nonchalant surface is palpable. The most reaction came from Naftali Bennett, the leader of the HaBayit HaYehudi and the Minister for both, Education and Diaspora Affairs, who is said to have written to the US president, "thank you from the bottom of my heart for your commitment and intention to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” Otherwise, the government has generally been quiet. The Israeli commentariat, however, has been effusive, Caroline Glick calling the decision 70 years late but welcome and Arsen Ostrovsky reiterating that Jerusalem is the "eternal & undivided capital of the State of Israel and the spiritual homeland of the Jewish people!" Most Israelis probably relate to the words of HaAvoda leader Avi Gabbay. When asked about the imbroglio that had resulted from Trump's announcement he replied, "When my parents came from Morocco to Jerusalem, I can assure you they didn’t check the State Department website to see if it’s the capital or not. They knew Jerusalem was the capital and just came.”
But what does Trump's declaration really matter? Jerusalem is the seat of the Israeli government as President Reuven Rivlin remarked, and no military in the Arab world is capable of removing them from it. No borders change on the ground and no one falls one the wrong side of a line; territories are not swapped. Is the whole drama not purely symbolic? Perhaps, but society is not so cynical yet that symbols have lost their value. And in the Middle East, few symbols are bigger than the City of David.