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