How Will US Jerusalem Move Affect Israel’s Far Right?
By Jonathan Cook: Donald Trump’s recognition this week of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, overturning seven decades of US policy in the region and effectively ending hopes of a two-state solution, has provoked dire warnings. But the focus by commentators on Palestinian reactions, rather than the effect on the Israeli public and leadership, might have underestimated the longer-term fallout from Trump’s move, analysts say.
Predictions have included the threat of renewed violence – even an uprising – from Palestinians; the possible collapse of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians’ government-in-waiting, and its diplomatic strategy for two states; and the demise of Washington’s claim to be serving as a credible peacemaker.
But according to analysts, more far-reaching – and disruptive – undercurrents will likely be set in motion by Trump’s decision.
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Few have factored in the likely effect of Trump’s new Jerusalem policy on the Israeli public, which has been shifting steadily to the right for most of the past two decades. The city and its contested holy sites have gained an increasingly powerful religious and national symbolism for many Israeli Jews.
The fear is that Trump’s effective rubber-stamping of the right’s political goals in Jerusalem will further radicalise both sides of the divide – and accelerate processes that have been turning a long-standing national conflict into a more openly religious one.
“We may remember this date as the tipping point, as the moment when a new consensus emerged in Israel behind the idea of total Jewish supremacy,” journalist David Sheen, an expert on Israel’s far-right movements, told Al Jazeera.
Similar concerns were expressed by Yousef Jabareen, a Palestinian member of Israel’s parliament.
“We can expect to see a move rightwards across Israeli society,” he told Al Jazeera. “The centre-left parties were already tacking much closer to the right. They will now want to align themselves with Trump’s position. Meanwhile, the right will be encouraged to move to the extreme right.”
Both noted that Avi Gabbay – the recently elected leader of the Zionist Union, the official opposition and the party that was once the backbone of the Israeli peace camp – had begun espousing positions little different from those of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Last week, Gabbay backed Trump’s announcement, saying that recognition of Jerusalem was more important than a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Sheen said that traditionally, the centre-left had been restrained in its political positions by concerns about alienating the United States: “Netanyahu has shown that he can bring the US round to his way of thinking by staying the course. In many Israelis’ eyes, he has now been proved right. The centrists may decide it is time to come onboard. Allying with the Republican right and the Christian evangelicals in the US may now look like a much safer bet.”
Settler movement spawned
The possible effects of Trump’s announcement on Israelis have been largely overlooked, even though previous turning points in the conflict have consistently resulted in dramatic lurches rightwards by the Israeli public.
Given Israel’s power over the Palestinians, these changes have played a decisive role in leading to the current impasse between Israel and the Palestinians, analysts note.
Most obviously, Israel’s seemingly “miraculous” victory in the 1967 war, defeating the armies of neighbouring Arab states in six days, unleashed a wave of Messianic Judaism that spawned the settler movement.
A new religious nationalism swept parts of the Israeli public, driving them into the occupied Palestinian territories to claim a supposed Biblical birthright.
Other major events have had a decisive effect too. Unexpectedly, the Oslo peace process, launched in the mid-1990s, persuaded many non-religious Israeli Jews to move into settlements in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem, doubling the numbers there in a few years.
Into the far right’s arms
Alan Baker, a legal adviser to the Israeli foreign ministry in that period, explained Israelis’ peculiar reading of the Oslo Accords. In their view, Oslo meant Israel was “present in the territories with their [the Palestinians’] consent and subject to the outcome of negotiations”.
In other words, many Israelis believed that the Oslo process had conferred an international legitimacy on the settlements.
Later, in 2000, after the Camp David summit collapsed without the sides agreeing to a two-state solution, Ehud Barak, Israel’s then-prime minister, blamed Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians. He said they were “no partner” for peace.
As a result, Israelis deserted the peace camp and drifted into the arms of the right and far-right. Netanyahu has reaped the benefits, leading a series of ultra-nationalist governments since 2009.
Now Trump’s decision on Jerusalem effectively gives Washington’s blessing to Israel’s illegal annexation of East Jerusalem and five decades of creating facts on the ground there, said Jabareen.
“Trump has legitimised the far-right’s argument that Israel can control all of Jerusalem by sheer force, by denying Palestinians their rights and by creating facts on the ground,” he said.
Demands for annexation
With their policy of aggressive unilateralism now paying dividends in the US, the settlers and the ultra-nationalists were unlikely to be satisfied with that success alone, he added. “The danger is that the religious right’s narrative will now seem persuasive at other sites in the occupied territories they demand, such as Hebron and Nablus.”
Since Trump’s election a year ago, Naftali Bennett, the Israeli education minister and the leader of the main settler party, has begun calling for Israel to seize the opportunity to annex West Bank settlements.
Pressure is likely now to mount rapidly on Netanyahu to shift even further to the right.
On the 972 website, Noam Sheizaf, an Israeli analyst, observed that Trump’s declaration had boosted the settlers’ position that “in the long run ‘facts on the ground’ are more important than diplomacy and politics, and that Israel will eventually win legitimacy for its actions”.
Effects in Jerusalem
The most immediate effects, according to Ir Amim, an IsraeIi human rights organisation, will be felt in Jerusalem itself. Government ministers have already drafted legislation to bring large West Bank settlements under Jerusalem’s municipal authority, as a way covertly to annex them.
There are also plans to strip large numbers of Palestinians of their Israeli-issued Jerusalem residency papers because they live outside the separation wall Israel built through the city more than a decade ago. That would cement a new, unassailable right-wing Jewish majority in Jerusalem.
Last week, Ir Amim warned in a statement that Trump’s move would be certain to “embolden” such actions by the Israeli right and provide a “tailwind” to those determined to pre-empt a two-state solution.
Assad Ghanem, a politics professor at Haifa University, told Al Jazeera: “Trump has given a legitimacy to the right’s Messianic agenda. He has adopted the language of the extreme right on Jerusalem – that it is Israel’s eternal, united capital. The far-right will declare this a victory.”
In parallel, Trump’s seal of approval for Israel’s takeover of Jerusalem is likely to intensify the city’s religious symbolism for Jews – and the importance of Israeli sovereignty over al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Ghanem noted.
In recent years, a growing number of rabbis have been overturning a centuries-old consensus that al-Aqsa compound is off-limits to Jews because it was not known where the ruins of an earlier Jewish temple lay. In Jewish tradition, it is forbidden to walk over an inner sanctum, known as the Holy of Holies.
Today, Jews regularly enter the compound and some even pray there. Settler rabbis and far-right government ministers have called for dividing the compound between Israelis and Palestinians, creating huge tensions with Palestinians.
Meanwhile, a once-fringe movement of Jewish supporters who wish to destroy the mosque to rebuild the ancient Jewish temple in its place, are gradually moving into the mainstream. Trump’s move will be a shot in the arm to their ambitions and their credibility, said Sheen, who has studied the temple movements.
He pointed out that immediately after Trump’s declaration, these groups had uploaded a cartoon of Trump standing in al-Aqsa compound, in front of the golden-topped Dome of the Rock, imagining the Jewish temple in its place. Trump is shown saying in Hebrew: “This is the perfect spot!”
Sheen said: “This will be treated as a call to arms by these groups.”
New tools of resistance
Will the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital have similarly dramatic long-term effect on Palestinian public opinion? Analysts believe it will. The lack of an outpouring of significant anger – even after Palestinian leaders called for three days of rage last week – could be deceptive.
Israeli analysts have suggested that there is often what they term an “incubation period” – a delay between a major change in Israel’s favour and a popular reaction from Palestinians. That was true of the second Intifada, which came months after the collapse of the Camp David summit.
An expectation of knee-jerk anger to Trump’s decision may be misplaced, say analysts. The decision may result in a slower and much deeper process of adjustment to the new reality.
“Palestinians will now have to abandon the old tools of national struggle, because they have been shown to be ineffective. We need new tools of resistance, and that will require a grassroots struggle. We need a return to mass protests,” Jabareen said.
Ghanem noted the danger that, with the likely growth of a Jewish religious extremism in Israel and among the settlers, some Palestinians might drift towards violence.
But he expected that a more significant trend would be Palestinians reassessing the end goal of their struggle and opting for mass civil disobedience.
“The two-state solution is obviously now finished, and that is likely to mobilise a new generation to struggle for a single state,” he said. “Activists and the leadership will need to rebuild Palestinian nationalism.”
Jonathan Cook is an award-winning British journalist based in Nazareth, Israel, since 2001.