President Donald Trump has apparently decided to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The announcement, expected to come on Wednesday, has already elicited sharp responses. Surprisingly, though, the real danger is, if anything, being understated.
The danger in this move is ironically epitomized in the statement by the dovish, pro-Israel group, J Street. Their president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, concludes his statement by saying, “While we would hope that any announcement would not result in further violence and suffering—in Israel, in the region and potentially around the world—we fear that it might.”
That’s nearly a universal sentiment, to be sure. But the real danger in Trump’s decision is that it not only may lead to violence, it makes violence necessary.
Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration official and current director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security said on Twitter, “The reaction to the Jerusalem capital recognition might be no big deal. Or it might be a total disaster. We just don’t know. Which is why every US President has chosen not to play with fire.”
Here’s the thing: if the immediate reaction is no big deal, that leads to much greater problems for the Palestinians.
US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital effectively takes the issue off the table as a final status issue, no matter how much the US, Israel, and people who are understandably desperate to save the two-state solution might argue otherwise. What does the aftermath of that action look like?
It is a virtual certainty that significant unrest will follow the US declaration on Jerusalem. In the West Bank and Gaza there is sure to be a massive outpouring of anger. In the wider Middle East, even sympathetic countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are likely to allow demonstrations for at least a few days after.
The fear that has restrained prior administrations, which might otherwise have done something like this, is that the ensuing anger would topple friendly leaders. Mahmoud Abbas in Palestine, King Abdullah in Jordan, and Mohammed al-Sisi in Egypt are the ones most clearly threatened. But unrest could spread to the Gulf states as well. More than likely, if things got that far out of hand, there would be a sharp crackdown on demonstrations. Such action would probably quell the protests, but it also risks enflaming them.
But there’s also a distinct possibility that after a week or two of protests, and even some violence, by the beginning of 2018, US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has become the new normal.
If it does turn out that way, the Palestinians will have received a very grim message. They will have been told that all the norms on which they have based their commitment to negotiations are nothing but smoke. They will have been told that the United States is their enemy, something a great many believe already, but which has never been so explicitly demonstrated. They will have been told that the international community is either unable or unwilling to do anything to materially assist them when the chips are down. They will have been told that their only hope is to create such pain for Israelis and unrest throughout the region that their needs will have to be addressed.
In short, the United States will have sent the message that Hamas and other armed groups have been right all along about the need to rely on armed struggle. If anything, the message would be that such efforts need to be dramatically increased.
That’s not the only message the Trump declaration would send. It would also tell Israel, in no uncertain terms, that its view that its national and territorial desires completely trump Palestinian rights is correct. It also gives impetus to those forces within Israel, many of which are currently represented in the government, that contemplate ways they might be rid of the Palestinians once and for all.
Whether such ideas take hold in Israel or not—and with the strong uptick in nationalism that we have witnessed in Israel over the past 15 years, we should not minimize this possibility—the fear of a second naqba will almost certainly sweep through the Palestinian Territories, the broader Middle East, and many communities of Palestinian supporters around the world.
Even for Donald Trump, few decisions have been as reckless, foolish, and heartless as this one. Even the hope for a response that minimizes bloodshed in the short term implies an even greater calamity down the road. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for activists, pundits, and governments all around the world. This decision seems to have been made. If so, it must be reversed.