Trump team helps defuse Jerusalem crisis but broader deal is far off

Sunday 30/07/2017

The violence in Jerusa­lem after Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s govern­ment placed metal detectors at entrances to the revered al-Aqsa Mosque compelled US President Donald Trump and his team to intervene.

Trump sent Jason Greenblatt, his peace process envoy, to the region and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, worked the phones from Washington. US ambassa­dor to Israel David Friedman was involved in discussions with the Israeli government and US consul general in Jerusalem Donald Blome talked with Palestinian leaders.

Jordanian King Abdullah II, who technically has custodianship over the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) where al-Aqsa Mosque is located, sided with the Palestin­ians in opposing the metal detec­tors.

Israeli-Jordanian relations became even more tense during the crisis after a confrontation between a Jordanian and Israeli security guards at the Israeli Em­bassy in Amman. Reportedly, in a dispute over furniture delivery to the embassy, a Jordanian worker stabbed an Israeli security guard with a screwdriver and guards fired at the assailant, killing him and a Jordanian by-stander.

Netanyahu wanted the security guards returned to Israel immedi­ately, citing diplomatic immunity, but Jordanian authorities wanted to detain them for questioning.

The Middle East Monitor re­ported that when Netanyahu failed to reach the king by telephone shortly after the attack on July 23, he appealed to the United States to intervene. Kushner, after speaking with several Jordanian officials, eventually spoke directly with the king and requested that he expedite the return of the security guards to Israel.

The following day, Greenblatt met with Netanyahu and Netan­yahu spoke by phone with King Abdullah. On the morning of July 25, Netanyahu agreed to remove the metal detectors.

Although all sides denied that there was a quid pro quo, it ap­pears that there may have been a deal in which Netanyahu relented on the metal detectors and the king conceded on the detention of the Israeli embassy security guards. Removal of the metal detectors may have been the result of internal discussions within the Israeli security establishment, with the Israeli military, which had op­posed the metal detectors, winning out over the Israeli police.

While the US position on the metal detectors was not revealed publicly, Friedman congratulated all parties for “defusing the crisis without a lot of noise and fanfare.” Although tensions in East Jerusa­lem remain high and another crisis could erupt, Friday prayers on July 28 took place without violence at al-Aqsa Mosque.

Netanyahu said in a state­ment: “I thank President Trump for directing Jared Kushner and dispatching Jason Greenblatt to help with our efforts to bring the Israeli Embassy staff home quickly. I thank King Abdullah as well for our close cooperation.”

The episode reveals that Trump’s peace process team is capable of easing tensions and facilitat­ing some degree of cooperation between the parties. Earlier in July, for example, Greenblatt helped broker a deal that had been under discussion for some time between the Palestinians and Israelis in which Israel would sell 33 million cubic metres of water to the Pales­tinian Authority each year.

However, on the broader goal of achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, they are a long way off. Yossi Alpher, a former Israeli Mos­sad official, recently remarked that Kushner, Greenblatt and Friedman were all “avid” supporters of Israeli settlements in the West Bank in their previous positions, implying that they may not have changed their outlooks.

How such a team will be effec­tive as honest brokers in the peace process between the Netanyahu government, which is also strongly supportive of the settlements, and the Palestinians, who see the set­tlements as illegal and an impedi­ment to a peace deal, is an open question.

It is not apparent, at least public­ly, how the Trump team is going to move the Netanyahu government to make substantial concessions necessary to strike the ultimate deal. Alpher said Netanyahu recently told French President Emmanuel Macron that he wants a parallel peace track with Arab countries, suggesting he wants them to recognise and make peace with Israel first and only then will he engage with the Palestinians. Such a sequence will not work as the Arab countries are unlikely to give Israel what it wants without prior movement on the Palestinian track.

So, while the Trump team de­serves praise for helping to quiet the recent crisis, the core issues remain, including the ultimate disposition of Jerusalem, which may be the most difficult of all to resolve.