Whatever domestic constituency he is appealing to, Trump could not, and would not, have made his announcement without regional backers
Only a symbol as powerful as Jerusalem can unite Palestinians as viscerally opposed to each other as Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. Only Jerusalem has the power to unite the inmates of all the prisons and places of exile Palestinians find themselves in – Israel’s physical prisons and its metaphorical ones, the Palestinians in 1948, Gaza, West Bank, the refugee camps and the diaspora. Only Jerusalem speaks to billions of Muslims around the world.
As Trump will soon learn, symbols are powerful. They have a habit of creating a reality all of their own.
Trump, however, does not act alone. Whatever domestic constituency he thinks he is appealing to, and the evangelical Christians appear high on the list, Trump could not and would not have made his announcement unless he had regional backers.
The support of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and religious nationalists from Jewish Home are a given, but they are wearily familiar. The exotic and temptingly alien support comes from a new generation of Gulf Arab superbrats – young, irreverent, dune-bashing, selfie-taking, in your face, and appearing in a coup near you.
Under Trump they have formed an axis of Arab autocrats, whose geopolitical ambition is as large as their wallets. They really do think they have the power to impose their will not just on the shards of a Palestinian state, but on the region as a whole.
Under construction, at least in their minds, is a network of modern police states, each wearing a lip gloss of Western liberalism. All see Likud as their natural partners, and Jared Kushner as their discreet interlocutor.
Thought, reflection, cooperation, consultation, consensus do not appear in their lexicon. Democracy is to be postponed, free speech is there to be managed. And Arabs? They are there to be bought.
I have my own country’s cause of development, freedom and emancipation from the past
– Turki al-Hamad, Saudi novelist and writer
This was why Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and the kingdom’s de facto ruler, thought he could browbeat Mahmoud Abbas, the ailing Palestinian president, into acquiescence. He told Abbas either to accept the terms – no Jerusalem, no right of return – or make way for someone who will, according to multiple sources quoted by the New York Times.
Several of the officials said bin Salman had offered to sweeten the deal with direct payment to Abbas, which he refused.
Normalising relations with Israel
Bin Salman’s threats have been orchestrated by a chorus of licensed Saudi writers and journalists all distancing themselves from the Palestinian cause and calling for normalisation of relations with Israel.
Chief among these is the Saudi novelist and writer Turki al-Hamad. Why, he tweeted, should he bother supporting Palestine, if the Palestinians themselves had sold out? Palestine should no longer be regarded as the prime Arab cause.
He wrote: “It was reported that I tweeted that Jerusalem is not the issue. This is not true. What I said was that Palestine is no longer the Arabs’ first cause after its people sold it out.
“I have my own country’s cause of development, freedom and emancipation from the past. As for Palestine, the house (Palestine) has a Lord (God) who would protect it if abandoned by its inhabitants (Palestinians).”
He added: “Since 1948 we have been suffering in the name of Palestine. Coups were orchestrated in the name of Palestine… development was suspended in the name of Palestine… liberties were repressed in the name of Palestine… eventually, even if Palestine were to return it would not be more than just a traditional Arab country… so let’s stop the fraud.
“In South Africa, the young struggled before the old… has the Palestinian done so, despite all the support? No… I shall not support a cause whose people were the first to abandon it.”
There are many other Saudi voices saying the same thing.
Hamzah Muhammad al-Salim, the writer and economic analyst, tweeted: “Once peace is concluded with Israel, it will become Saudi Arabia’s first tourist destination.”
Sa’ud al-Fawzan wrote: “I am not a defender of the Jews, but name a single Jew who killed one Saudi and I’ll give you the names of one thousand Saudis who killed their own countrymen with explosive belts.”
The former director of al-Arabiyah TV channel, Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid, wrote: “It is about time to reconsider the concept of dealing with Palestine and Israel.”
Muhammad al-Sheikh said: “The issue of Palestine is not ours… if an Islamist wearing make-up came to you calling for jihad, spit into his face.”
In a country where tweeting the wrong tweet can get you a three-year spell in prison, these are not spontaneous expressions. Rather they set the mood music for the announcement Trump made.
Division of the region
This then is the axis behind Trump – the crown princes and de facto rulers of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Mohammed bin Salman, Mohammed bin Zayed, Abdel Fatah el Sisi are all personally dependent on Trump.
Neither the blockade of Qatar, nor the attempt to force Saad Hariri to resign as prime minister of Lebanon, nor the break-up of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the formation of a military and economic alliance between Saudi and the Emiratis could have happened without Trump’s green light.
Trump has enabled bin Salman to smash the pillars of the Saudi state, rob his cousins of their wealth, and dress it all up in the name of modernisation and reform.
But they, too, have allowed Trump to impose his Muslim ban and retweet the poison of British fascists about Muslims.
The chaos created by this group has opened up a clear distance with another group of US allies, who are feeling the effects of these policies on themselves. King Abdullah of Jordan, and Mahmoud Abbas both tried to warn Washington of the dangers of what Trump was about to announce on Jerusalem. They see themselves as cornered and have lost the space to manoeuvre.
Jordan is joined by Turkey, whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cross-party support for suspending relations with Israel. Turkey is currently the leader of the 57 member-nation strong Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Nationalists too are joining the hue and cry. The leader of Turkey’s opposition Nationalist Movement Party, Devlet Bahceli, warned the US was making an “historic mistake” with its decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Bahceli said: “The Jerusalem plot is a dagger which has been drawn out to strike all things we consider holy.”
The third group is Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah, who were presented yet another gift on a silver platter. Trump has now given Iran a huge opportunity to repair the damage done by the civil war in Syria with Sunni groups and nations, to say once more: ” We are with you over Jerusalem.” It’s an invitation Tehran will eagerly accept.
The fourth group is one Trump, Netanyahu, bin Salman, bin Zayed can never reach. They are the Palestinians themselves. Historically they are at their most powerful when they are at their most isolated. This was the power shown at the start of the first and second intifadas. It was what came to the fore when they forced Israel to take away the security barriers at the entrance to the old city.
No Palestinian, be he or she nationalist, secular, Islamist, Christian can accept losing Jerusalem as their capital, and we will see exactly what this means in the days and weeks to come. There are 300,000 Jerusalemites who are residents, but not citizens of, the freshly declared Israeli capital and Trump has just thrown a grenade in their midst.
Friday will be the 30th anniversary of the first intifada. Just watch the Palestinian reaction to the walls of the Old City, the only bit of “real estate” they had left, lighting up in the colours of Israeli and US flags.