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Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Wikimedia Commons

Shining New Light on the Palestinian Cause: The Unintended Consequences of Trump’s Jerusalem Declaration

A few days before U.S. President Donald Trump declared that America would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a number of Arab heads  of state—including the leaders of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian Authority (not yet a state but one in the making since Oslo)—were  informed that Trump would be making this declaration. Even before Trump went public, these leaders warned Trump that this was an unwise act and would have negative consequences for the Arab states most involved (publically or privately) in supporting the peace process with Israel.

When Trump did go public, Arab media and a variety of political figures and pundits in the region and Europe declared their disappointment, or open opposition, including Pope Francis, the Secretary General of the United Nations, the UN General Assembly, and all members of the UN Security Council, save the United States. If pundits, were prophesying that this declaration would lead to "fire and fury," until now, it has not.  On the contrary, the phrase has proven to be a dramatization, as well as a deft cut to Trump's highly sensitive and overpowering ego; Fire and Fury is precisely the title of a very unfavorable biography, denounced by Trump and his limited number of well-known, and therefore quotable, supporters.

In response to Trump’s declaration, Arab governments simultaneously denounced it in public, while in sotto voce urging the media, private as well as state-owned, to be reserved. Governments discouraged passionate coverage in the media so as not to stir up demonstrations that could turn violent and destructive, and encourage the West Bank Palestinian youth under occupation to undertake a third intifada.

For those who might ask why not another intifada? I would note that in contrast to the first intifada, the second quickly turned seriously violent. It was serious in the sense that even "non-violent" Palestinian demonstrations have invariably involved stone-throwing, which provided the Israeli Army (the IDF) with the necessary excuse to open fire, be it rubber coated bullets or what we could call "live fire." Stone-throwing is such an obviously self-defeating tactic that the IDF sent Israeli Arabs (Palestinians), presumably recruited by Israeli intelligence, to join in demonstration and initiate the stone-throwing to encourage others.

The second Intifada turned so nasty and deadly—far more so for the Palestinians than the Israelis—that the only accomplishment was to drive an estimated 100,000 West Bankers to flee. They escaped either to Jordan, or in many cases into Israel if they had extended family still living in what was once Mandatory Palestine, but was largely turned into Israel in 1948. The second Intifada also provided the Israeli government with an excuse to send the IDF back into all of the West Bank, devastating much of the local economy.

Because the IDF was either told by the Israeli government or decided on its own, they responded this time around with unusual restraint and relative distance to the somewhat violent demonstrations in occupied East Jerusalem, as well as some West Bank cities that were within PLO governance, but still under an Israeli security screen. As a result, the number of fatalities of Palestinian youth was much lower in comparison to equivalent demonstrations in the past.

One item of nearly universal speculation in global as well as Arab media, was the question of Trump's motivation. There are several theories. Trump's son-law, Jared Kushner, who has significant influence on the President and whose wife, Ivanka, converted to Judaism, and Trump's ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, are both observant Modern Orthodox Jews. They also share an attachment to the right wing religious nationalist party, which is an influential participant in Netanyahu's coalition cabinet.

Another theory is that this was a campaign promise Trump could easily keep, unlike several of his other pledges that, if fulfilled, would have put him at odds with the very Wall Street companies and big businesses he denounced during the campaign. Now, they are not only spared his previous wrath, but are beneficiaries of cabinet appointments and presidential directives, such as the increasing de-regulation of economic life, and the Tax Reform bill (the one significant piece of actual legislation which obviously and overwhelmingly favors the very rich over the middle classes).

A third theory is that the declaration could boost Trump’s declining approval rating by appealing to a significant sector of his base, the Protestant Evangelical “Christian Zionists" (a catchy phrase but not exactly accurate in its use of the word Zionist). This group is fanatically pro-Zionist and promote a convoluted theological interpretation of a looming messianic epic that would take up too much time and space to get into here. They number in the many millions—an estimated 30 to 40 million Americans. In addition, they are reportedly donating more money to Israel than the small Jewish population in America, whose significant college-aged population is growing increasingly indifferent to Israel.

I buy into all three theories. Whatever the reason, or reasons, for the declaration, what is fairly certain is that Trump never expected so much opposition.

To grasp the complexity of what might appear a simple scenario, we must consider the following: With utter lack of consciousness, Donald Trump did something (already capitalized in much of Israeli media as the “Jerusalem Declaration”) that was of help to the Palestinian cause. Consider first that with the collapse of the peace talks between between Abbas and Netanyahu several years ago and no subsequent Intifada since the PA leadership committed itself to non-violence, there was no organizational capacity to encourage another Intifada. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the Arab Middle East was degenerating into domestic battlefields, as was the case in Iraq and Syria, and later Yemen, and the relatively brief interlude known as The Arab Spring. These were much more newsworthy events.

As a result, Arab and global media was focused on violence elsewhere, rather than the sorrows of the West Bank Palestinians. The situation in the West Bank appeared relatively calm outwardly, save for the one-day stories of the occasional lone-wolf knife attacks on Israelis taking place mostly in Jerusalem. Inwardly, however, it was terribly tense given all the harassment and conscious humiliation that has become routine practice by the IDF in the West Bank. In Egypt, media interest was briefly revived when the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Dr. Ahmed Al Tayeb, hosted the "Al Azhar International Conference Supporting Jerusalem." Participants included Tawados II, the Pope and Patriarch of Egypt's largest Christian community, the Coptic Orthodox Church, as well as leaders and representatives of other Christian communities in the Arab world and the West. Also participating was Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Yousef  Al-Othaimeen, and the Chief of the Arab Parliament, Meshaal bin Fahm Al Salmi.

The conference reaffirmed the Palestinians’ right to an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital, the importance of preserving Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, making Jerusalem the main theme of the sermons delivered at Friday Prayer at least once a month under the supervision of the religious endowment ministries in the Arab states, and other relevant resolutions.

Sheikh Hossam El Din Allam, a Researcher at the Supreme Council of Al Azhar told me that, overall, Egyptian media coverage was fairly good and the reporting was very supportive. He expected the Egyptian media to adopt the resolution of the conference and dedicate 2018 to raising awareness of Palestine in general, and of Jerusalem in particular. Sheikh Hossam was pleased to see the participation of Naturi Karta, drawn from the ranks of an Orthodox Jewish community that is mostly settled in the United States. Naturi Karta has maintained the once prevalent pre-Holocaust position of nearly all Orthodox Jews in Eastern Europe, that Zionism was alien to the beliefs of Judaism. A Naturi Karta Rabbi addressed the conference on the first day. Sheikh Hossam was particularly pleased by this presence and participation, for it affirmed that the opposition to the Zionist conquest of Palestine was not a form of anti-Semitism, as is often claimed by Israeli and pro-Israeli spokespeople in the West.

When Trump made his declaration, it was widely denounced, or at least publically criticized, by nearly all the EU foreign ministers including France's President Macron, Germany's Angela Merkel, British Parliamentarians including the Prime Minister, Russia, and China. In fact, it was condemned by just about every country in the world except, of course, Israel and a handful of countries dependent upon US economic assistance. With all the international attention, Palestine was suddenly a focal point for the media again.

The issue of Palestine, and the history and fate of Arab Jerusalem, dominated Egyptian media as it did in many other Arab countries in the first week following Trump's declaration. Al Ahram Weekly devoted half of its 20-page standard edition to Trump’s declaration, Palestine, and Jerusalem.

However, the most significant, intense, and enduring Arab media response to the declaration and Trump's promise to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has not been from the print media or broadcast journalism, but from social media. Well-known Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab wrote in Al Monitor on December 12 that, as far as media responses go, “perhaps the biggest response has been in the virtual world. Millions have turned to social media and digital platforms to express their support and position on Jerusalem."

I have always been wary of social media for reasons that would require another article. However, this time around I am deeply and favorably impressed. I just might send out my first ever tweet.

About Abdallah Schleifer

S. Abdallah Schleifer is editor-at-large of  Arab Media & Society. He is the former director of the Adham Center and now professor emeritus in journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Prior to joining the AUC faculty, Schleifer served as NBC News Cairo Bureau Chief and Middle East producer/reporter based in Beirut, and has covered the Middle East for American and Arab media for over 20 years. Schleifer is honorary and former chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Cairo.

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