Thirty years ago last weekend the first intifada began in a Gaza refugee camp, when an Israeli army lorry collided with a civilian car, killing four Palestinians. The uprising spread like wildfire and burned for six years. It was a popular expression of frustration over 20 years of occupation that took both the Israelis and the Palestinian leadership, at the time in exile in Tunisia, by complete surprise. This week Donald Trump drove a truck into the most sensitive of Palestinian grievances: the status of Jerusalem. Days of rage have been called. Years of fury may follow.
The US president’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and to move the US embassy there, is a provocative and reckless step. It will alienate Arab allies, trigger protests across the Middle East, and have serious, perhaps fatal, consequences for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Instead of understanding such risks, Mr Trump talked of accepting a reality. Jerusalem is, he said, already home of the Israeli parliament and the Israeli Supreme Court. This is a smokescreen. Mr Trump is conducting an exercise in coercive diplomacy, creating new facts on the ground when none existed before. Like the issue of refugees, settlements and borders, the status of Jerusalem – holy to three religions – is unfinished business. Neither Israel nor any other state has ever been internationally recognised as having sovereignty over Jerusalem. When Israel declared the undivided city its capital in 1980, it was condemned by the UN Security Council. Since then no nation has had its embassy in Jerusalem. It would be better to keep it that way and restart meaningful peace talks for a two-state solution.
For Palestinians, the new Trumpian posture psychologically erodes any sense that the occupation was a temporary phase pending a peace agreement. It also undermines the US position as an honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians. In unilaterally offering to move the US embassy, Mr Trump is like a poker player who folds before the cards have been dealt. The Israelis have offered nothing: so much for the art of the deal. True, Mr Trump says the Palestinians have a chance to get a US embassy too, but not now – if ever. Mr Trump’s Middle East envoy is his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is hardly a disinterested mediator having been caught out for failing to disclose his role in funding illegal Israeli settlements.
Mr Trump brags that he is a dealmaker able to close transactions no one else can. He looks like a conman, offering the impossible because he has no intention of making good on his promise. What his actions will do is consolidate support in sections of the Christian right in America who see Israel’s control of Jerusalem as fulfilling a biblical prophecy, perhaps heralding an ultimate clash of civilisations. There are more temporal motivations: Israel is led by its most rightwing government in history, supported by the religious right. Like Mr Trump, the Israeli prime minister is in the spotlight of high-profile criminal investigations. Both leaders want their base behind them as their cronies face charges and prison.
The US president cares little about the plight of benighted peoples. He is in politics for himself. In thumbing his nose at the US foreign policy establishment and isolating America globally, he is at his most Trumpian: bringing a guillotine down on the complexity of 21st-century geopolitics. Order through strength, not justice, appears his way. If the price of fulfilling a campaign promise is killing the chance of reviving the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, Mr Trump reasons, so be it; as long as he can puff out his chest and read the eulogy.
Mr Trump’s narcissistic grandstanding has been enabled by the hubris of others. The folly of the US Congress was to adopt bipartisan resolutions going back two decades calling for a US embassy move to Jerusalem – confident that no president would call their bluff. Now Mr Trump has discredited their role as politicians able to make enlightened policy. Also looking foolish is the Saudi crown prince, whose bets in Lebanon and Yemen backfired this week, and whose proposal for a territorially non-contiguous Palestinian state minus Jerusalem as its capital was laughed out of the court of Arab opinion. The UN Security Council has been unable to deal with the destabilising plans of rogue states. With the US veto, it will be hard to sanction Mr Trump. Palestinians have justifiable reasons to feel that their aspirations are being ignored. Mr Trump is wrong to have given them another.