Behind US President Donald Trump’s shock announcement recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital lies a web of meetings between his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Arab world had been abuzz with reports and speculation that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas had been summoned to Riyadh to agree to a deal that would sell Palestinians down the river.
The assumption being made is that the powerful Saudi prince has placed his offensive against Shia Iran for regional hegemony above the Palestinian cause which, for most Arab states, has become a mere ritual. And there was a method in Mr Trump choosing Riyadh as his first port of call as President and famously indulging in a tribal sword dance to give prominence to an old relationship.
Saudi Arabia condemned Mr Trump’s announcement as the leader of Sunni Islam and the home of the two holy shrines, and other Arab states followed suit, with the Arab League chipping in. The emergency session of the UN Security Council showed how isolated it was among allies as well as opponents. How far it will affect events is another matter.
The truth is that Israel is in a strong position and Palestinians are weak, with Mr Abbas having overrun his term by years. Though Britain, the then imperial power, gave Jews a home, the United States helped make Israel a military power, winked at it acquiring nuclear weapons and through a series of accords brought Israel into a commanding position in relation to its adversaries. This is for geopolitical and sentimental reasons: as an ally in a turbulent region and the clout of the Jewish lobby in domestic politics.
There have been expected demonstrations in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories with killings by Israeli forces. The Hamas faction has called for starting a new intifada (uprising), and a few token missile strikes on Israeli targets. The low intensity of rioting thus far would have pleased Israelis.
By all accounts, the US is finalising plans to present a solution to the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian issue, to be unveiled early next year. Although Mr Trump said he was not pre-determining Jerusalem’s boundaries, with East Jerusalem having been annexed by Israel, his silence favours Tel Aviv.
According to longstanding canons set by the major powers, the future of Jerusalem, the home of three religions, was to be a subject for Israeli-Palestinian discussions. Mr Trump has upended the whole process by nixing a litany of agreements and UN Security Council resolutions in favour of his own arbitrary formula. And this is being finalised with Arab leaders behind the scenes. Leaks suggest that Palestinians can say goodbye to an independent state, will lose East Jerusalem, projected as its capital in a two-state solution, and will be offered crumbs of territory outside Israeli settlements guarded by Israeli troops.
In short, we are beginning to see a new Middle East ballgame, with the leader of the Sunni monarchies, Saudi Arabia, aligning its policies with Israel in its overall objective of getting the better of Iran. The Saudi Crown Prince, universally known as MbS, has proved ambitious and reckless in leading a military assault on Yemen and is a man in a hurry.
Yet those inclined to celebrate the death of Palestine might be jumping the gun. A cataclysmic chain of events set in motion by Mr Trump strikes at the heart of Arab nationalism. Russia is being arraigned for annexing Crimea, once a part of the larger Soviet Union. And here is a state ruling over an entire population after seizing its territory, building illegal settlements on occupied land being given carte blanche by the most powerful nation in the world.
By all accounts, the present Benjamin Netanyahu government is the most right-wing in Israel’s history, but Israel faces a major problem of its own future. Will it rule over an entire population, South Africa apartheid-style, denying them basic rights? If so, can it retain its present democratic structure or become like a paler copy of the old white South Africa?
Domestically, President Trump is on a strong wicket on this issue. After all, the declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was decreed by the US Congress years ago, with the question sidestepped by successive Presidents fearing the consequences.
Mr Trump therefore has cross-party support, at least in public, for his unusual decision.
One other aspect of the declaration is worthy of note. The world has sympathised with the Jews for what Nazi Germany did to them in the past. And now that the state of Israel is rich and powerful, thanks to American help and through its people’s own resolve, it is behaving as the big bully, conquering land, expelling residents and denying the people it rules their rights.
The Arabs, on their part, don’t have a coherent strategy. Leading with Saudi Arabia, many are beholden to the US for military aid, if not money. We have seen the fate of the Arab Spring and the despair of the people of many countries led to the phenomenon of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Indeed, one unintended consequence could be a fresh rise in extremism ironically coming after Iraq has declared itself free from the Islamic State.
One problem is that the Arab world misses a leader of the stature of Nasser, around whom it could coalesce. MbS might be seeking such a role but that lies in the future. At present it is non-Arab Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been most vocal and active in the Palestinian cause, interacting with world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, and neighbours to protest against Mr Trump’s declaration.
Whether a new intifada starts or not, the world can only pray that America’s new explicit support for Israel doesn’t lead a hothead living on Palestinian frustrations to undertake a dramatic act of spectacular violence that would plunge the region into a deeper crisis.