Before President Trump’s announcement last Wednesday that he was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and setting in motion plans to move the embassy, I was pretty clear on what I thought was likely to happen. As I wrote two days prior to the announcement and testified to Congress last month, unless Trump made unambiguously clear that the U.S. was only recognizing Israeli claims over West Jerusalem, I anticipated violence to break out immediately and for the change in American policy to doom any chances of a successful peace initiative in the short term and possibly kill off Palestinian engagement entirely in the long term. Immediately after watching Trump’s short speech on Wednesday, in assessing the likely fallout, I wrote, “Trump’s lack of an explicit endorsement of an equal Palestinian claim to part of the city will be seen as a reversal of longstanding American policy and make it far more difficult for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to continue to engage with Trump’s emerging peace initiative. It will adversely affect Palestinian cooperation with the U.S. and Israel going forward, and is likely to lead to protests and violence.”
I stand behind the long term policy analysis completely. The president’s announcement is going to make American engagement with the Palestinians on any peace initiative nearly impossible, and it is going to lead the Palestinians to harden their negotiating position. Trump’s decision not to explicitly recognize that Palestinians have a claim to Jerusalem as well puts a two-state solution and peace further out of reach.
But any honest self-assessment necessarily reaches the conclusion that in at least one important way I was wrong. No, I did not predict an intifada or for Israel and the region to completely blow up, but I absolutely expected sustained protests at least on par with what took place last summer over the Temple Mount, and I feared dozens of lives lost. Even a single fatality is one too many and the renewed rocket fire from Gaza is not coincidental. Still, I am enormously relieved that my forecast was not borne out in the form of more widespread violence. As an analyst though, it is not sufficient to be happy that I was wrong. Rather, the onus is on me to figure out why.
One possibility is that I badly overestimated the extent to which Palestinians, and Arab and Muslim populations more widely, care about the status of Jerusalem. Despite the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not seem to arouse emotions the same way it once did, Jerusalem has been an exception to that. This exception recently played out over the Temple Mount metal detectors episode, and much of the social media incitement against Israel explicitly focuses on Jerusalem. Yet, it is undeniable that the protests over Trump’s announcement have been muted. Perhaps this is because Palestinians are not driven to action by Jerusalem the same way they are by the Temple Mount specifically, perhaps it is because Trump said that recognition of Jerusalem as capital was not a comment on specific borders or sovereignty, or perhaps it is because the Palestinian leadership’s focus on Jerusalem is not shared by ordinary Palestinians. But whatever the reason, Trump’s announcement has not led people into the streets with the intensity that I expected.
Another possibility is that Palestinians do care deeply about Jerusalem, but that I did not take into account the wider political environment. After watching the failures of the Arab Spring and wars in Gaza in 2009, 2012, and 2014, Palestinians’ appetite for protest and conflict that leads nowhere appears negligible. Much like the second intifada has had a lasting impact on the way Israelis view politics and security issues, I suspect that the Arab Spring is going to have a similarly lasting effect on Arab populations. With the exception of Tunisia, it is hard to make a case that citizens of any of the countries in which there were mass protests are now better off for what those protests wrought, and despite being fed up with both Israel and their own leaders, Palestinians do not have a recent successful model for change – either violent or nonviolent – to which they can point.
Along similar lines, a Palestinian friend pointed out one other factor to me yesterday that differentiates the lack of protests last week from the protests that did occur over the Temple Mount over the summer. In the latter case, Palestinians had a specific and achievable goal in mind – the removal of the metal detectors from the Temple Mount. In the Jerusalem recognition case, there is no similarly tangible goal to be attained. Trump is not going to reverse his announcement nor recognize a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem before a permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians establishes a Palestinian state, so there is no accomplishment to be gained through protests. In other words, the absence of widespread protests is not a substance issue, but a process issue.
Third, I was focused too much on society and not enough on the state. Israeli security forces have done an admirable job of containing potential violence and not providing Palestinian spoilers with an excuse to escalate. In addition, the Palestinian Authority has a strong incentive not to let things get out of control, and the way in which this incentive has prevented a full-blown intifada multiple times over the past few years is still operative. The PA is unpopular, lacks credibility, and is deathly afraid of creating a chaotic opening in which anything can happen. Much like ordinary Palestinians have internalized the failures of the Arab Spring, the PA has internalized the failures of turning its guns on Israel or completely getting out the way and allowing violence to spiral out of control. For all of the PA-bashing that takes place for various sins from corruption to incitement, it has absorbed that cooperation with Israel is better than the alternative and it has acted to make sure that Palestinian anger over the Jerusalem announcement is more of a controlled burn than a conflagration. As Avi Issacharoff noted a few days ago, “the PA is, for now, being somewhat cautious in terms of direct confrontation with Israel on the ground. Unlike the leaders of other, rival groups, most notably Hamas, it has not sent the message to its activists to ‘open the gates of hell.’”
Finally, it is possible that I was not entirely wrong, but that the full effects of Trump’s speech have not played out. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of assuming that because something has not yet happened, it never will happen. One datapoint in support of this hypothesis is the slowly escalating rocket fire from Gaza in the wake of the announcement, which thanks to Israel’s Iron Dome and Palestinian technical incompetence has not done any damage yet, but should a rocket kill Israelis and provoke an Israeli response, all bets are off. Gaza has been on the edge for months as it is, and a war in Gaza now would be destabilizing in the same way that Protective Edge was in 2014 connected as it was to the kidnapped Israeli soldiers.
Aside from tensions over Gaza, there is something that is potentially even more worrisome on the horizon, which is the Jerusalem decision radicalizing Palestinians in a way that will be difficult to reverse. Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research conducted a poll from December 7-10 immediately after Trump’s announcement, and the results related to the Jerusalem issue are alarming. 91 percent viewed Trump’s Jerusalem decision as a threat to Palestinian interests, while 44 percent now believe that armed resistance is the most effective means of establishing a Palestinian state, up from 35 percent in the last poll conducted three months ago. This suggests that while protests were restrained in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s announcement, the anger and potential for a violent response are increasing rather than being shrugged off.
I am not in a position to judge which of these possibilities carries the most weight, although I suspect that Palestinians just not caring about Jerusalem’s status or not thinking that it really impacts them is at the bottom of the causation chain, and that this has more to do with Palestinians believing that protests will be fruitless. But in any event, while I adamantly maintain that the manner in which the president recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital does not advance the cause of peace, my prediction about a broader violent response was wrong, and hopefully I have put my finger on why. As before, I hope that I continue to be wrong about the Palestinian reaction, and that the degree of bloodshed I anticipated never materializes rather than bubbles up later.