Israel's Jerusalem victory looks increasingly hollow
The timing of President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital last week was calculated to have maximum effect on the Israeli public.
Trump started speaking at 8pm local time (1pm Washington time, a strange time for an historic speech) when Israel's television networks began their prime time evening news shows. The text was provided in advance so that the networks could prepare a translation and subtitles in Hebrew.
Israeli commentators were unanimous in their assessment that Trump's speech was an historic one. Even the left admitted how thrilled they were to hear the US president speaking in such glowing terms about the Jewish attachment to its capital, all 3000 years of it.
Netanyahu learnt this week the grave limitations of the American influence worldwide in the Trump era
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu went into celebration mode. The son of a medieval historian, Netanyahu framed Trump's statement as one of the most important events in modern Jewish history, equal only to the Balfour Declaration, Israel's independence in 1948 and the occupation (or liberation, as he put it) of Jerusalem in 1967. Culture Minister Miri Regev, a woman known for her pomposity, said that Trump's name "will be engraved forever on the stones of Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall".
Yet despite the warm welcome given to Trump's speech by the Jewish Israeli public, no scenes of joy were seen in Israel or even in Jerusalem itself. Most Israelis, it seemed, were content to know that the American president had unambiguously sided with them but failed to see how it affected their lives. From the first day of kindergarten, Israelis are taught that Jerusalem is their capital. With all its symbolic weight, there was nothing new in Trump's speech.
As days passed it became clearer that even politically, Trump's words had less impact than the Israeli right read into them. The fact that Trump declared that borders would be decided in later negotiations was initially ignored, intentionally or unintentionally, by the Israeli right, which saw the declaration as a recognition in Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem. Transportation Minister Israel Katz, one of the strongest men in Netanyahu's Likud party and a frontrunner in the undeclared battle to replace him if he is forced to resign over the criminal investigations against him, was brave enough to tell the Saudi website Elaf that Trump did not recognise a "united Jerusalem" (code for the annexation of its Palestinian part) as Israel's capital and left the door open on the issue of East Jerusalem. This admission is a long way off the jubilation shown by Netanyahu to Trump's speech.
Trump's declaration was likened to the exchange of letters between President George W Bush and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 in which the US president wrote that the Palestinian refugee problem should be resolved outside of Israel's borders and that any peace deal would have to take into account the existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
But this is misleading. While settlements and the right of return remained highly contentious in all negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the Palestinians never actually refused to recognise West Jerusalem as Israel's capital after a peace deal was signed.
No more takers
The international arena looks even less promising for Israel. Netanyahu did not conceal his hope that other countries would follow Trump's lead. Given the weight traditionally attached to US positions on world affairs, this was a reasonable surmise. When the Czech president Milos Zeman announced that his country would consider recognising West Jerusalem as Israel's capital, this was seen as just the first drop in a wave of international recognition.
Even the Czech Republic and Hungary, two of the more pro-Israeli Eastern Europe countries, refrained to say when, if at all, they will move their embassy to Jerusalem
It did not happen. Netanyahu hoped that during his visit to Brussels early this week, which was scheduled before Trump's speech, he would be able to convince at least some EU member states to recognise Jerusalem. He failed. Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, flatly rejected the American move and set her face against any compromise on the issue. His meeting with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, did not go any better.
Even the Czech Republic and Hungary, two of the more pro-Israeli Eastern Europe countries in which Netanyahu invested considerable effort and time, refrained eventually to say when, if at all, they will move their embassy to Jerusalem.
Netanyahu learned this week the limitations of America's global reach in the Trump era. If, as reports in the Israeli media suggest, EU leaders publicly declare Jerusalem as the joint capital of Israel and a future independent Palestinian state, it will amount to a colossal Israeli diplomatic defeat.
From the Israeli point of view, the picture also looks mixed regarding the Palestinians. It is true that Palestinian parties and organisations, which unanimously called for large-scale demonstrations last week, have so far failed to mobilise the masses.
There were marches and clashes in all the Palestinian cities, but the scale was smaller than expected. The Israeli army was relatively restrained, especially in the West Bank, and as the number of casualties has so far been small, the Israeli media just ignored the demonstrations.
Most Israeli commentators interpreted this mild initial response as a failure for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and for Hamas' hope of launching a third Intifada. But this is to look at things from a strictly short-term perspective. The demonstrations did not die out and grew more intense on Friday, and the situation along the border with Gaza became more violent with several protesters killed.
Yet more importantly, after being almost forgotten by most of the Arab and Muslim world, the issue of Jerusalem helped Abbas revive the Palestinian question in the regional and international arena. The demonstrations all over the Muslim world sent a clear message that as far as Jerusalem is concerned, the Palestinians are not alone.
The final resolution of the 57-member-strong Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit held in Istanbul this week, which declared East Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine, did not come as a surprise to Israel. Yet Israel cannot ignore the fact that it holds full diplomatic relations with at least 20 members of this organisation.
Arab allies muted
No less important, the "Sunni axis" – Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Egypt - in which Netanyahu and Israel held high hopes, seems to have suffered a painful blow. Although the language they used was mild, Egypt and Saudi Arabia had no option but to condemn Trump's speech. It is difficult to see how the Saudi government will permit itself to upgrade its relations with Israel, as it clearly wished to just before Trump’s latest move.
With their refusal to accept the visit of US Vice President Mike Pence in Ramallah, Abbas and the Palestinians have raised the stakes against what was considered to be the strongest and maybe only outside force in the Middle East conflict. So far, it seems, the gamble has worked. If Trump hoped to push through his "ultimate deal" by persuading the Saudis to pressure the Palestinians into an agreement which - according to most leaks - seemed extremely unfavourable to them, this prospect looks very distant now.
Despite the Palestinian position, the US will remain the main negotiator in the Middle East for the foreseeable future, primarily because no one else – neither the EU nor Russia - is ready to take its place. But the weakness shown by American diplomacy in recent days will certainly not help its best friend in the region, namely Israel.
This is not to say the solemn American recognition of Jerusalem as its capital made Israel the loser, but it did not give it any tangible gains either.
- Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for an inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the news department at Haaretz, and now an independent journalist.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Demonstrators walk over images of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu as they take part in a protest in Paris on 9 December (AFP).
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.
Stay informed with MEE's newsletters
Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.