The Jerusalem Gambit

The United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as part of its decades-long support of Israeli colonialism.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with President Donald Trump at Ben Gurion Airport in May 2017. Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs / Flickr

Last week, President Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocate the American embassy there.

Jerusalem has long been a site of Israeli oppression against Palestinians. As the Israeli human rights group B’tselem explains, Trump claims Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, but “Israel has never recognized Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents — the people whose land the state annexed unilaterally and unlawfully.”

During the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing campaign through which the Israeli state was created, Israel took control of West Jerusalem. Twenty years later, it began its occupation East Jerusalem and, in 1973, mandated a 73 to 26 percent demographic advantage for Jewish residents.

Since then, 280,000 settlers have illegally moved in, and Israel has stripped 14,500 Palestinians of their residency rights, made it prohibitively difficult for the Palestinians who remain to get building permits, enacted discriminatory budgets, and provided municipal services unequally.

But the city has long been the center of Palestinian life and Israel has no sovereignty over it under international law. In this respect, Trump’s decision amounts to “recognition from those who do not own to those who do not deserve,” in the words of the Palestine Centre for Human Rights. For the Palestinian Youth Movement, the decision is “tantamount to spitting in the face of our people and decades-long anti-colonial struggle and even constitute[s] a form of colonial incitement,” a “symbolic coup-de-grace towards Palestinian assertion of our rightful self-determination and agency over our shared social, cultural and historical heritage.”

The UN Security Council denounced Trump’s decision. The Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq notes that the “recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel violates the inalienable Palestinian right to self-determination” while the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights points out that it is a “blatant breach of UN resolutions 476, 478, and 181 and undermines the rights of the Palestinian people.”

More than 130 American Jewish Studies scholars signed a petition condemning the US government for “appear[ing] to endorse sole Jewish proprietorship over Jerusalem.” The document notes that “Jerusalem is of immense religious and thus emotional significance to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike . . . We hope one day to see a world in which all inhabitants of the land enjoy equal access to the city’s cultural and material resources.”

Palestinians have launched mass protests in response to Trump’s move. Israeli forces have bombed Gaza, killing two, and wounding approximately one hundred Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Despite strong opposition, the United States seems unlikely to reverse its decision. It believes that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will finally quash Palestinian resistance, thereby bolstering the regional position of America and its partners.

US-Managed Colonization

The Jerusalem decision isn’t just an example of Trump’s wildly destructive leadership but an outcome of longstanding American strategy.

In fact, Democrats have been pushing for this move for more than twenty-five years. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both came into office saying they supported the decision, and, in 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which mandated that the United States move its embassy to Jerusalem. Thirty-two Democrats, including Joe Biden and John Kerry, cosponsored the bill.

In June of this year, the Senate voted 90-0 to reaffirm the 1995 law and to call on the president to follow its provisions. Prominent Democrats like Cory Booker, Ben Cardin, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Chuck Schumer co-sponsored the resolution and Bernie Sanders voted in favor of the legislation. Chuck Schumer, the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, criticized the president in October for his indecision over the issue and now claims he advised Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided capital.”

In this regard, the Jerusalem declaration represents another instance of bipartisan support for Israeli settler colonialism.

The US government provided significant support to Israel prior to 1967, but that year’s war consecrated the relationship. Since then, Israel has served as an invaluable proxy for the American state, providing mercenary services against Arab nationalism, Middle Eastern leftists, Soviet allies in the region and beyond, and any force considered a barrier to American capital.

Israel has also become a lucrative arms market for US firms, and the ruling classes of both nations are so deeply enmeshed in sectors such as technology and security that it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Put simply, Israel could not have committed its innumerable crimes against the Palestinians and others in the region at any approaching the scale that it has without the United States underwriting it financially, military, and politically.

At the end of the Cold War, American and Israeli capitalists and politicians decided to integrate Israel into the regional order. For that to happen, they would have to put the Palestinian question to rest. The United States embarked on this mandate through what has been misleadingly named a “peace process.”

The 1993 Oslo Accords were the height of this endeavor. This agreement put off the issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees’ right of return to an unspecified date and gave Palestinians only limited sovereignty over Gaza and the West Bank.

It assigned the administration of these territories to the Palestinian Authority (PA), a creation of Oslo. As Mandy Turner writes, the PA is “a non-sovereign entity whose existence is subject to continuous negotiations with its occupier, Israel,” as well as with international donors unaccountable to Palestinians, making it “party to a complex process of co-optation while Israel continued its colonial practices.” The PA, Turner shows, has frequently fulfilled both Israeli and American wishes, notably by suppressing Palestinian resistance.

In the years after Oslo, the number of Israelis illegally settled in the West Bank — including East Jerusalem — has more than doubled. Gaza has been largely reduced to a prison camp where Israel has slaughters thousands, and Palestinian citizens of Israel face systemic discrimination. The violence inherent in all these relationships underlines the fact that “peace” is a misnomer: better to think of the process as one more phase of colonization.

As Rashid Khalidi documents in Brokers of Deceit, the United States has not stayed neutral in talks between Palestine and Israel but has acted as “Israel’s lawyer.” US politicians, he writes, have abided by “domestic politics and the politics of big oil and the big arms industry, all of which favored maintenance of a status quo predicated on preventing a just and peaceful resolution” in Palestine-Israel.

From this perspective, Trump’s assertion that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel isn’t a threat to the peace process: it represents its logical conclusion.

Strange Bedfellows

We should understand the Jerusalem gambit in the context of the American ruling class’s effort to solidify Israeli-Gulf supremacy in the region under the auspices of US imperialism. This requires normalizing relations between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar. (Qatar’s case is complicated by Saudi-led efforts to isolate the nation, which Israel supports because of the former’s amicable relations with Hamas and Iran.)

Securing this regional bloc would weaken, if not crush, the forces American imperial planners and their Middle Eastern partners see as obstacles. Iran, its allies in Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah, and the Yemeni Houthis all rank high on this list. Though the latter’s ties to Iran are often exaggerated, animus against them has helped drive the cataclysmic war that the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and their allies are waging on Yemen.

Likewise, in Syria, the United States, Israel, and the GCC countries fought a proxy war against Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, and the Syrian government. And last month, Saudi Arabia seemed to have forced Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to briefly resign, likely because they felt he was too close to Hezbollah.

But we cannot separate the geopolitical interests between the United States, Israel, and the GCC from the economic ones, which Adam Hanieh describes as

a policy of integrating [America’s] bases of support in the region within a single, neoliberal economic zone tied to the US through a series of bilateral trade agreements. This vision is aimed at promoting the free flow of capital and goods (but not necessarily labor) throughout the Middle East region. The region’s markets will be dominated by US imports, while cheap labor, concentrated in economic “free” zones owned by regional and international capital, will manufacture low-cost exports destined for markets in the US, the EU, Israel, and the Gulf.

To fully realize this scenario, the United States must encourage alliances between the pro-US Arab dictatorships and Israel, which requires normalizing the dispossession of the Palestinian people, a process that has been underway for years.

Saudi Arabia has long been the United States’ main partner in the GCC. As Toby C. Jones explains, “weapons sales and the entanglement of the American military-industrial complex with Saudi oil wealth” undergird this partnership. He goes on, “[t]here is no greater engine for the recycling of Saudi and Gulf Arab petrodollars than massive and expensive weapons systems.”

Now Israel seems to be cultivating its own special relationship with Saudi Arabia. After Hariri’s resignation, Israel ordered its diplomats to echo Saudi talking points that claimed he quit because of Iranian meddling in Lebanon. In November, a senior Israeli military official told Saudi media that Israel will share intelligence on Iran with the Saudi state.

The Trump administration’s Jerusalem move comes amid a larger push to resolve the Palestinian question through what looks to be a ludicrously unjust solution, and it has enlisted the Saudis to act as its envoy. According to the New York Times, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented PA president Mahmoud Abbas with a plan under which:

Palestinians would get a state of their own but only non-contiguous parts of the West Bank and only limited sovereignty over their own territory. The vast majority of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which most of the world considers illegal, would remain. The Palestinians would not be given East Jerusalem as their capital and there would be no right of return for Palestinian refugees.

This deal would require the Palestinians to accept an area that accounts for just a fraction of the West Bank and pretend that this non-sovereign fraction of their nation constitutes a state while acquiescing on the issues of refugees and Jerusalem. That the entirety of the West Bank and Gaza only make up 22 percent of historic Palestine underscores that the Palestinians people are not being asked to make a deal but to surrender. Prince Mohammed reportedly told Abbas that, if he doesn’t agree to these terms, he’ll be replaced by someone who will.

According to Peter Barker, the Trump government sees a “convergence of factors that make the moment ripe [for such an arrangement], including an increased willingness by Arab states to finally solve the issue to refocus attention on Iran, which they consider the bigger threat [than Israel].”

Indeed, sources with knowledge of the meeting between Abbas and bin Salman say that the crown prince told Abbas that the Saudi state is “in serious need of support from the United States and Israel to face its ‘existential conflict’ with Tehran” but that the Saudis cannot have Israel on their side as long as the Palestinian question remains unanswered. Therefore, Prince Mohammed wants to build “a grand regional alliance” in which both Israelis and Palestinians confront Iran.

To build such an alliance, the United States must convince Arab dictators to defy their people’s wishes and embrace the Israeli colonization of Palestine. Moving the capital to Jerusalem is one part of the effort to quash Palestinian resistance, thereby settling the Palestinian question once and for all.

The tenuous reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah (the PA’s dominant faction) will play a major role moving forward. Hamas’s relations with Iran and Syria deteriorated when Hamas declined to support the Syrian government in its civil war, but this situation seems to changing. In November officials from Hamas and Hezbollah met, reportedly because the latter was trying to restore the connection between Hamas and Syria. It’s difficult to imagine the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation surviving when Hamas is aligned with Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria and the Fatah-led PA is entrenched in the US-Saudi-Israeli camp.

The United States and its satellites seem to be trying to nullify Palestinian resistance to colonization by keeping the people divided, blessing the theft of Jerusalem, and ensuring that the Palestinian Authority consummates a profoundly unjust agreement with Israel.

These moves are component parts of the US-led effort to neutralize opposition to US-GCC-Israeli hegemony from Iran and its partners, particularly Hezbollah.

Rumblings of a third intifada have followed Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, and demonstrations in support of the Palestinians are taking place across the planet. The United States’ decision may have inadvertently given more oxygen to the decades-old flames of Palestinian resistance and worldwide solidarity with their cause, perhaps enough to begin tilting the balance of forces toward an eventual peace with liberation.