Why the Jerusalem declaration is Trump’s cruelest move yet

Ben Wolford Dec. 8, 2017
A father and mother are in the middle of a difficult discussion over the custody of their child. They’ve both been crying. It’s the most critical moment of their lives. Suddenly, a preposterous man sits down at the dining room table, issues a legally binding order in favor of the father and then abruptly changes the subject: “Big crowd expected today in Pensacola, Florida, for a Make America Great Again speech!”

If you can imagine the way the mother feels, you can begin to imagine how Palestinians feel today.
The U.S. conversation has moved away from Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The story was way down on the home pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. I couldn’t even find stories about it on the leftist front pages of Mother Jones and Jacobin. A Latterlycontributing editor in Washington just told me that “it’s barely being discussed.”
The arrogant nonchalance is part of what’s so infuriating to Palestinians. Trump’s declaration was a gut punch to 12 million people that left them feeling sick, morose and angry in a way that’s difficult for non-Palestinians to understand. And we don’t even bother trying. Indifference is America’s ultimate act of cruelty.
But in fact, this is the worst thing the Trump administration has done. Worse than the Muslim ban, worse than repealing DACA and worse than walking away from the Paris Agreement.
Twenty thousand people assembled in downtown Amman today—and thousands more protested around the world—because one more piece of land has just been taken away from them. They did not elect the person who took it from them. The Israelis did not elect that person. And not even a majority of American voters elected that person. Fewer still among those who voted for Donald Trump know anything about the Israel-Palestine dispute or care.
Yet the images streaming out of today’s protests can give you an idea how much Trump’s 12-minute speech on Jerusalem matters. If you think this demonstration has the look and feel of the protests that led to the Arab Spring, you’re not wrong. There’s a direct link between the way these protesters feel now and the way the protesters felt in 2011.
I’ll explain that, but first the requisite background. Jerusalem is a divided city. Both Israel and Palestine claim the whole municipality, but for now, after decades of gridlock, each side is mostly content to grasp a portion: the Israelis in West Jerusalem and the Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Palestinians wanted East Jerusalem to be part of Palestine in any two-state agreement.
Trump, by himself, for no apparent reason, has imperiled that arrangement by declaring (or rather, slurring) “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.” He didn’t say West Jerusalem. He said Jerusalem.
Journalists yesterday tried to make David M. Satterfield, the acting assistant U.S. secretary of state for the Middle East, clarify the president’s statement. It ended with Satterfield attempting to say grammatically acceptable sentences while at the same time saying nothing at all:
QUESTION: Could you explain the distinction between recognizing the capital and not deciding anything on borders as it refers to a deal? Because if you’re saying that this is a final status issue to be negotiated at the table, how does either (a), this not prejudice a deal when Jerusalem is a final status issue, or (b), how is it not a meaningless declaration that could be negotiated at the table? It has to be one or the other.
AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: Elise, final status negotiations are going to deal with those boundaries of sovereignty, border questions that the president spoke to as not addressed by his recognition. The president thought it was the right thing to do for the United States, after all these years, to acknowledge the fact, the reality, that Jerusalem is the seat of government of the state of Israel, the capital of the state of Israel. That’s it.
QUESTION: But it’s — respectfully, it’s inconsistent with the idea that you would also be negotiating at the table unless you can acknowledge what we’re all trying to get you to say, which you artfully are not —
AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: Thank you, Elise. You may well think that. Thank you.
QUESTION: Well — but the idea that it may — that is — that Jerusalem is the capital, but perhaps in final status negotiations that it might be not the united capital.
AMBASSADOR SATTERFIELD: Elise, I will only address one more point on this. What were the words the President used? It was a very simple statement: recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. There are words you might want to put in there; he didn’t. There are words you might want to take out; he didn’t. That statement was very carefully made, as was the comment we are not prejudicing addressing by this decision final status issue.
When asked in what way the statement was carefully made, he said “I’m not going to get into a tick-tock on this.” Asked if he personally agreed with the decision, Satterfield gritted his teeth: “Oh, now. I am an employee of the U.S. government. … This is a decision which we will work our best to execute and advance.”
In the absence of any clarification from the Trump administration, Palestinians have intuited what’s going on here: The United States, which was supposed to be mediating a deal, has suddenly awarded a city it doesn’t own to a people that doesn’t deserve it, as one Amman protester put it. The chief Palestinian negotiator told The New York Times he’d given up on hope for a two-state solution and was shifting strategy toward simply making life better for Arabs stuck under Israeli occupation. “This is the reality,” he said. “We live here. Our struggle should focus on one thing: equal rights.”
The people he represents—those thousands marching in Palestine, Jordan and elsewhere today—aren’t ready to give up. But they, too, have undergone a shift. To speak with them, it feels like more than a mere shift in strategy, though that’s part of it: They’ve steeled their hearts and clenched their fists to a new reality in which no one—not the U.S., not Israel and not the Arab leaders who govern the Palestinian diaspora—is dealing with them honestly.
Remember, this is a people that understands all of Palestine to be its territory, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea. They understand Zionists and the West to have stolen this place where Jews, Muslims, Christians and others once lived together; imposed a religious state; and subjected the local inhabitants to second-class status or worse. They understand that they will one day reclaim this land, no matter how long it takes. The dream is to establish a democracy where Jews, Muslims, Christians and others can again live peacefully—a state where they can pay taxes and elect officials that work for everyone.
Today that dream seems further away. The Palestinian Authority, a governing body set up in 1994 to manage the transition to a Palestinian state, and its Fatah party leadership are seen as failing. The alternative, a Hamas-led vision of armed struggle, begins to appear as though it were necessary all along.
“They … have been told that their only hope is to create such pain for Israelis and unrest throughout the region that their needs will have to be addressed,” writes Mitchell Plitnick, former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
This isn’t to say that Palestinians are the violent, extremist hotheads that Israeli and American propaganda would have you believe. (For instance, the U.S. embassy here in Amman ordered the children of government employees to stay home from school on Thursday. As far as I know, this wasn’t based on any intelligence that kids were in danger. Rather, it smells more like racist fear-mongering: “Those reactionary Arabs will kill your children.”)
On the contrary, Palestinians who aspire to nationhood view—with good reason—the Israeli occupation of Palestine as a violent, military project. Therefore, right or wrong, arguments for a violent, military response are at least understandable and should not be conflated with terrorism, as the editor of The Jerusalem Post does.
Such a conflict would be devastating. More than 1,500 civilians died in the 2014 Gaza War, almost all of them Palestinian, including some 500 children. But Palestinians are willing to die for statehood. Already, I’ve just seen a report of two killed by Israeli forces in Gaza during protests.
Such demonstrations could keep growing, especially as they relate to U.S.-allied Arab dictators in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are not only repressive (in a variety of ways) but are seen as increasingly cozy with Israel as a counterweight to Iran and Islamic extremist groups. It’s in this sense that many Palestinians are calling for a second Arab Spring, in the hopes that such an uprising would spawn a dozen Tunisias. But it could also spawn a dozen Syrias.
That predictions falls at the cataclysmic end of the spectrum of possibilities. So far, the “three days of rage” Palestinian leaders called for have been mostly peaceful. There’s still plenty of room for the parties to salvage the nonviolent resolution that Trump’s action threatens to destroy. But it would be a mistake to discount Palestinians’ feelings of powerlessness—and the power such a feeling creates.
Why would Trump even want to mess with that? “It is almost impossible to see the logic,” wrote Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution. Sixty-three percent of Americans opposed the move, according to a University of Maryland poll.
Trump’s motives for anything are a mystery, and he likes to keep it that way. He prefers chaos to continuity, and he likes to do things that make him the center of attention. He’s also been the target of an intense pressure campaignby right-wing American Jewish organizations, Evangelical Christians and wealthy donors like casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who made the Jerusalem embassy relocation a focus of their lobbying efforts. It worked.
The biggest reason this was such an irresponsible decision is simple: It didn’t have to be made.
It was a cruel decision because the majority of Americans aren’t effected and don’t care, while for so many people in the street today it felt like everything.