The Trump Effect in Gaza

The effects of Donald Trump’s trip last month to the Middle East continue to multiply. The focus, quite correctly has been on the breach between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But the effects of the Saudis’ wooing of Trump are felt throughout the region.

Flattering the president of the United States is a sensible thing for most world leaders to do, but this president, basking in all-encompassing flattery, becomes immediately susceptible to the views of his supplicants. Trump came away from his Middle East trip having bought whole cloth into the Saudi narrative of regional politics, and his criticism of Qatar clearly spurred on what has transpired since. But it was not only the Saudi royal family that captured Trump’s attention. Read more at LobeLog

Jerusalem of Tarnished Gold

Take a particularly provocative and grandstanding Israeli government and shift its focus from Hamas and Gaza to Jerusalem and you have a 8148113621_de93dc64a3_kmost explosive recipe. That potion is being stirred now, and the results could shake up the status quo in a way that we have only seen a few times in Israel’s history.

Much of the recent news narrative starts with the wounding of Yehuda Glick, a US expat who emigrated to Israel as child and became one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed “Temple Mount Movement.” In reality, this chapter of the endless and bloody saga of the Old City of Jerusalem began with the last Israeli election. That poll brought into power the most radically right-wing of Israeli governments, representing an odd mixture of zealous Zionism, modern Orthodoxy in Judaism and a curious impulse to completely disregard centuries of Jewish law regarding the Temple Mount. We’ll get back to that later, but first it’s important to recognize the potential fallout from further escalation.

The recall of Jordan’s ambassador to Israel is no small matter, and it reflects just how important this issue is to the Hashemite kingdom. Despite having lost the West Bank to Israel in 1967 and having relinquished its claim to it in 1988, Jordan is still the guardian of the Jerusalem holy sites for the Muslim world. This status is precious to the Hashemites, and the prestige it brings is a crucial element for their continued hold on power.

The Israeli threats have escalated steadily since the election and then ticked up sharply in the spring, when the Netanyahu government began its anti-Hamas crackdown throughout the West Bank, under the false cover of searching for kidnap victims the Israelis already knew had been brutally murdered. Tensions and demonstrations in Jerusalem were escalating throughout the summer, while everyone’s attention was, quite understandably, focused on Gaza.

This was the inevitable result of an intensely nationalistic government believing it had finally done away with the façade of negotiations in which Jerusalem was a central issue. Brazen statements, provocative visits, and then crackdowns and harsher limits on Palestinian worshippers at al-Aqsa Mosque were all to be expected.

One question that these events raise is whether this is the intention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or the result of his unwillingness to challenge his coalition partners and members of his own party on a passionately populist issue. I tend to lean toward the latter belief, as Netanyahu has usually shown himself to be the sort of leader who does nothing unless he’s pressured by politics. In either case, the Israeli actions have raised concerns from Washington to Brussels to Cairo and, most resoundingly, to Amman.

Despite the peace treaty with Israel being massively unpopular in Jordan, where the majority of the citizens are Palestinian, it has not been a cause for major internal upheaval. For Jordan, peace has not only brought financial and diplomatic support from the United States, it has also opened up a new market with Israel, which exports goods to Jordan and thereby to the rest of the Arab world, despite the ongoing regional boycott against Israel.

Tinderbox

But now there is unrest and unease in Jordan. King Abdullah’s support of the United States’ efforts against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) has helped rile some of the more radical elements in Jordan, adding to the tensions that already existed between the government and more mainstream Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The country is undergoing a severe economic crisis, with massive unemployment, even while it is also burdened with refugees from Syria and Iraq, many of whom have sharp complaints about their treatment.

These conditions make Jordan a tinderbox. And Jerusalem is just as sure a fuse for a Jordanian tinderbox as it is for an Israeli-Palestinian one. These are the factors that led King Abdullah to recall his ambassador from Israel. Only once before, when Israel attempted to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Jordan, has peace between Jordan and Israel been so threatened.

The Israelis have surely given this consideration, but they likely estimate that Jordan would not dare abrogate its treaty with Israel. Such a move would surely endanger Jordan’s support from the US, and that could be fatal if, indeed, internal conflict does break out in the Hashemite kingdom. Ultimately, Israel probably believes that unless it tries to threaten the authority of the Islamic Waqf, which is the body that administrates the Temple Mount, or otherwise officially changes the status quo of the area, Jordan will not withdraw from the treaty.

That’s a reasonable assessment, but it should not be banked on too strongly. Given the precarious situation in Jordan, its leadership’s main concern now is avoiding an outbreak of civil conflict altogether. Even though the Jordanian military is far superior to that of, say, Iraq, a popular uprising triggered by conflict over the Jerusalem holy sites could quickly spread to encompass the mass dissatisfaction with both the economic conditions and Hashemite rule in the country in general. Abdullah does not want to gamble on his ability to contain all of that anger. Though unlikely, that concern does give him a reason to potentially take the bold step of ending peace with Israel, and deal with the consequences of that step later.

For Israel, such an outcome would mean near-total isolation again. Even the Sisi government in Egypt would have a difficult time continuing to work with Israel all by itself. Egyptians remember well the isolation they experienced from the rest of the Arab world after their treaty with Israel was first struck. It took a very long time, even after they were re-admitted into the Arab League, for Egypt to regain a position of some stature in the Arab world.

New Path

The entire approach the international community has taken toward Jerusalem needs to re-evaluated, and quickly. For years, Israel has treated Jerusalem as a flashpoint it could manipulate for nationalistic reasons, and for a long time, young Palestinian Muslims (sometimes all of them under the age of 50, other times the cutoff age has been as low as 35) have been unable to go to pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque. To be sure, there have also been many incidents of Palestinians using Friday prayers as a launching pad for protests and stone-throwing, sometimes down the hill at Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall.

Israeli soldiers and police blocking Palestinians from one of the entrances to the old city in Jerusalem. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

Israeli soldiers and police blocking Palestinians from one of the entrances to the old city in Jerusalem on March 14, 2010. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

Now, Jerusalem is being used by different parts of Israel’s governing coalition. The further right elements are crystallizing nationalist fervor around it. Netanyahu, for his part, is using the violence that Israeli actions are stirring up to blame Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas as part of his campaign to convince people that all of Israel’s opponents—IS, Iran, Hamas, and the PA as led by Abbas—are essentially the same enemy of not only Israel, but the entire world. And, of course, Hamas, and Fatah as well, are using the Israeli actions as a rallying cry, spurring people to both organized and individual acts of resistance and/or terrorism.

But it’s high time reality set in and we understood this to be an issue of nationalism manipulating religion to its ends. Many of the Jewish Temple Mount activists claim that they are pursuing a civil rights issue. After all, they argue, if the Muslim right to pray at their third holiest site is sacrosanct, shouldn’t the Jewish right to pray at their holiest site be at least as high a priority?

Sorry, but that’s not what this is about. Religious Zionism has twisted many Jewish precepts over the years. But even Israel’s chief rabbis have reiterated continuously that Jews must not pray on the Temple Mount or even walk upon it for fear of treading upon the area of the Holiest of Holies, which was inside the Temple and where only the High Priest may enter.

Religious Zionists are split on this issue, as some religious leaders have, in a rather arbitrary fashion, decided that going up to the Temple Mount is acceptable. And, it must be noted, that this notion is an entirely modern phenomenon. It is only in recent years that even religious Zionists have tried to completely negate this particular tenet of Jewish tradition, which has been undisputed for most of our history.

As with so many issues regarding Israel, this is not about Judaism. In fact, it’s not about the terms of much of mainstream Zionism, either. It is a brazen effort by far-right nationalists, some because of a radicalized messianism, some with more secular motivations, to lay claim to Jewish rule over Jerusalem as a whole. It is of a piece with the escalating efforts by Jewish Israelis to spread the colonization of East Jerusalem in the hope of making a unified, Jewish Jerusalem a fait accompli.

Israel is playing with fire on a number of levels here, with the Palestinians and with the broader Arab and Muslim worlds. Thus far, the government has been justified in its belief that the United States and Europe would do nothing more than issue the usual condemnations, not recognizing that Israel’s actions could make compromise on Jerusalem a practical impossibility.

But at some point the US and EU must recognize that if Israel continues to increase its antagonism on the issue of Jerusalem, it’s going to radicalize a lot more than just the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, as well as complicate their efforts against IS and other concerns in the Arab World. If they don’t take some action to reign Israel in soon, they will also be paying the consequences.

A Tale of Two Ceasefires

A slightly edited version of this article first appeared at LobeLog. It’s the best resource on the web for analysis of US foreign policy. Please check it out. 

The two ceasefire proposals aimed at ending the accelerated violence in Gaza and Israel offer one of the best illustrations of the

Relatives and friends of the al-Kaware family carry 7 bodies to the mosque during their funeral in Khan Yunis, in the Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. The father, a member of the Fatah movement, and his 6 sons were all killed the day before in an Israeli air strike that targeted their home. Credit: AFP/Thomas Coexthomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images/Used under a Creative Commons license

Relatives and friends of the al-Kaware family carry 7 bodies to the mosque during their funeral in Khan Yunis, in the Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. The father, a member of the Fatah movement, and his 6 sons were all killed the day before in an Israeli air strike that targeted their home. Credit: AFP/Thomas Coexthomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images/Used under a Creative Commons license

Israel-Palestine conflict one could ask for. The circumstances and the content of each proposal demonstrate very well why outside pressure is necessary to end this vexing, seemingly endless struggle and just how differently Israelis and Palestinians view both current events and the conflict as a whole.

Let’s look at the two proposals. Egypt, acting as the United States normally does, worked out the details of their ceasefire idea with Israel primarily. The deal reflects the Israeli and Egyptian agenda: it mostly follows the formula of “quiet for quiet,” essentially bringing back the status quo ante of early June. It offers Hamas a vague promise of future negotiations to address the siege of the Strip. But this is hardly something Hamas will put stock in. The 2012 ceasefire agreement, which was negotiated by then-Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, a man much friendlier to Hamas than the current Egyptian leadership, also made such a promise and it never came to anything. Finally, Egypt says it is willing to open the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt more widely but only if Hamas allows PA security to police it instead of their own people. Continue reading

Hamas’ Options: Bad and Worse

An edited version of this piece originally appeared at LobeLog

The fighting in Gaza will continue for some time, as a ceasefire agreement brokered by Egypt fell apart. Despite the bellicose

The remains of the Ministry of Interior’s Civilian Affairs office after Israeli bombardments in Gaza City, November 2012. UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan

The remains of the Ministry of Interior’s Civilian Affairs office after Israeli bombardments in Gaza City, November 2012. UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan

language Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has employed over the past week, it was Hamas and not Israel that rejected the proposal. This was, to be sure, the direct result of that proposal not meeting any of Hamas’ demands for a ceasefire and, because as one Israeli official put it, “…we discovered we’d made a cease-fire agreement with ourselves.” The dynamics of this turn of events are important and tell us much of how the ground has changed in the region.

We first must ask why Hamas rejected the Egyptian proposal. They have been rather clear about their reasons:

  • One, Hamas felt, quite correctly, that Egypt had essentially negotiated this deal with Israel, then presented it as a fait accompli to Hamas. In fact, they said they first heard about it through social media.
  • Two, Hamas has declared that they intend to come out of this round of fighting with some gains. In particular, they want to see the siege that Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2007, the release of all the prisoners who had been re-arrested recently after being freed in exchange for Hamas freeing Gilad Shalit in 2011, and the negotiation of a long term truce, as was agreed in 2012, but never acted upon. The terms of the proposal offered no such relief, or any real change to the status quo.
  • Three, many among Hamas and other groups believe this proposal was deliberately put forth by Egypt as one Israel would accept and Hamas would reject, in order to legitimize further attacks on Gaza. The way things have unfolded, they may very well be correct.

Continue reading

Interview With Iran Review

The Iran Review web site published an interview done with me by their correspondent, Kourosh Ziabari. It covers a wide range of

Your humble narrator

Your humble narrator

subjects related to Israel, including the current talks, Gaza and the standoff with Iran, among other issues. I reprint it below. The original can be found at the link above. The interview was conducted on August 26, 2013. 

Iran Review Exclusive Interview with Mitchell Plitnick
By: Kourosh Ziabari Continue reading