What US response to Jerusalem crisis says about Trump-era Mideast diplomacy

Once again, the US has intervened to try to quell Israeli-Palestinian violence. But that hasn't stopped experts from questioning the prospects of Trump's goal of an 'ultimate deal' on Mideast peace.

Oded Balilty/AP
Palestinian women pray at the Lion's Gate in Jerusalem on July 25, heeding a call from clerics to pray in the streets instead of inside the Al Aqsa Mosque compound until a dispute with Israel over security arrangements is settled.

Once again, a cycle of deadly violence between Israelis and Palestinians – this time sparked by recent events at Jerusalem’s holiest of religious sites – poisoned already strained relations between the two populations and threatened to drag neighbors into the storm.

And once again the United States intervened.

As tensions spiraled and deaths related to the flare-up mounted, President Trump on Sunday – some say belatedly – dispatched his Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt to Israel.

After meetings Monday with Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and into Tuesday, with a side trip to consult Jordan’s King Abdullah, Mr. Greenblatt was able to claim at least a role in an initial success, as Israel announced it was reversing new security measures on the Temple Mount/Haram Sharif site that had caused increasing outrage and protests around the Middle East.

Yet despite hopeful signs that steps addressing the current crisis may ease tensions, larger questions have bubbled up around the American mediation mission. Those include just how much leverage the US retains to stanch bloodletting and coax the parties back from the brink.

Moreover, Mr. Trump’s dispatching of his crisis envoy instead of bigger diplomatic guns – traditionally secretaries of State have been sent to broker crisis resolution deals, but in this case Rex Tillerson was nowhere in sight – has some region-honed diplomats and experts questioning the prospects of the president’s goal of an “ultimate deal” on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“The president has talked a lot about achieving the ‘ultimate deal’ – but he’s delegated the work and details to people who simply don’t have the skills, experience, and credibility to put forward the kinds of new ideas that could speak to all the parties involved and help make progress,” says Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

“This current crisis demonstrates the urgency of not letting things spiral out of control,” he adds, “but it’s hard to see real movement beyond immediate crisis management without higher-level [US] engagement.”

Outrage over metal detectors

The wave of violence that claimed at least 10 lives and froze relations between the Israeli and Palestinian governments began early this month when Israel installed metal detectors at the entrance to the compound containing Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque – Islam’s third-holiest shrine – after three Arab Israelis shot and killed two Israeli guards at the site. The mosque is located on the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, venerated as the location of the two biblical temples.

Deadly demonstrations against Israel’s security measures ensued. On Friday a Palestinian who later said he was acting in protest against the measures at al-Aqsa invaded a home in a West Bank settlement and killed three family members eating the Sabbath meal.

Then on Sunday an Israeli guard at Israel’s diplomatic compound in Amman shot and killed two Jordanians after being attacked with a screwdriver by one of the Jordanians, who was delivering furniture to the diplomatic mission.

It was at this point, with the violence spreading to Jordan and threatening a wider crisis, that Trump dispatched Greenblatt to the region. Israeli officials also spoke by phone with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and his designated Middle East dealmaker, but Mr. Kushner was obligated to remain in Washington to testify in Congress on his dealings with Russia during the presidential campaign.

Tensions began to ease early Tuesday after Jordan – in the hours following Greenblatt’s visit – allowed the Israeli Embassy guard to return to Israel with the rest of the embassy staff. Then in the early morning hours Israel dismantled the metal detectors at the gate leading to the mosque compound, pledging to replace them with high-tech cameras.

Officials claimed no quid-pro-quo deal was struck. But whatever led to the steps easing the crisis, some analysts say the resolution may say more about regional dynamics and politics than about enduring US clout in the Middle East.

“Even if you call this a non-deal deal, I think it was more likely driven by events on the ground than anything else,” says David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process.

Israel's ties to Sunni states

Another key factor, he postulates, was Mr. Netanyahu’s consideration of this crisis in the context of Israel’s position in the region vis-à-vis increasingly friendly Sunni Arab regimes.

“Israel is very proud of its growing outreach with the Sunni states, and I just wonder if Netanyahu stepped back and decided, ‘Look, if this is not isolated, if I don’t solve this thing, this could really obstruct the inroads we’ve made with the Sunni Arabs and the Gulf states,’” says Mr. Makovsky, who from 2013-14 was a senior adviser on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to Secretary of State John Kerry.

Along those same lines, others say Netanyahu may have had one eye on Turkey’s increasingly belligerent talk about the events at al-Aqsa Mosque, and may have been prompted by it to act quickly to head off Israel’s isolation.

“The Turks have been fanning the flames of this crisis, declaring that al-Aqsa is under siege, and it has looked to some like they are competing in a way with the Jordanians for influence in Jerusalem,” says CSIS’s Mr. Malka. “That trend is really worrying to the Israelis.”

Some Israeli analysts agree that Israel’s improving relations with Sunni states are critical to any progress towards peace – be it in resolving sudden crises or in pursuing an end to the decades-old Middle East conflict.

But some say the US, and the Trump administration’s emphasis on improving regional relations as key to an eventual comprehensive deal, are essential factors in any steps forward by the two principal parties.

“The US is very well-positioned right now to explore, with the involvement of Mr. Greenblatt, the commonalities between the moderate Sunni regimes and Israel, and to see where that can lead, not just in resolving crises but in achieving regional peace,” says Gilead Sher, director of the Center for Applied Negotiations at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

The argument that Trump should have sent in bigger guns to address the Temple Mount crisis holds little sway with Mr. Sher, who says that Greenblatt “has enough credibility and respect at this point to help restore order and get the parties back to talking.”

Others say the US retains incomparable clout in the region and for nudging along the peace process both because of and despite Trump’s unorthodox approach to diplomacy in the region.

“The good news is that the US has leverage because nobody wants to say ‘no’ to Trump, particularly because he is so unpredictable in what he’s going to do in response,” says the Washington Institute’s Makovsky. “The not-good news is that if the parties don’t have the requisite political will to square the circle – and neither side does right now – they will just say, ‘I didn’t say ‘no’ to Trump, the other side did,” he adds.

Cost of failure

Where many analysts find common ground is in the assessment that Trump, if he really wants to achieve Mideast peace, will have to forgo the idea of the all-at-once ultimate deal in favor of a long path of small steps to get there.

“The old approach on the basis of the formula that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ has to give way to a continuous hands-on approach, with America leading a gradual process of interim agreements,” says Sher, who is co-chair of Blue White Future, a nonpartisan group that favors a two-state solution allowing survival of a “Jewish and democratic” Israel. “The new formula should be that whatever is agreed should be implemented.”

Makovsky says he is worried that “America’s standing in the region will be very seriously eroded if we try and fail for a fourth time to get the big deal all at once,” as Trump seems to want.

“Whenever it’s all or nothing in the Middle East, it’s always nothing, so I would say, ‘Don’t try to do the grand deal,’” Makovsky says. Instead, the baseball fan says the US should “stop trying to do the home run and instead go for a series of singles.”

The current crisis underscores the deep sensitivities on both sides concerning Jerusalem and its place in both peoples’ identity, so Makovsky says the US should not expect its “opening base hits” on that emotional issue.

But he says the “singles” should begin in areas that figure at the top of each side’s list: security for Israel and land issues for the Palestinians.

“People on both sides need to see that steps forward are possible, that there is a process,” Makovsky says. “But it’s really up to the leaders, more than any outside influence including the US, to show they can move the ball.”

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