Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a turning point in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, the issue is much bigger than Palestine as Donald Trump may have just lit the match that will set off the powder keg of the Arab World.
Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel predictably sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East and reverberated around the world. Anger and outrage have been seen on the streets of Palestinian cities, as well as in major cities around the world, where diaspora Palestinians and their allies have launched a wave of protests in condemnation of this outrageous provocation by Washington.
But amid the fiery indignation much of the analysis of the political and strategic consequences of the proclamation has remained superficial at best. Few have bothered to ask the all-important questions related to Palestinian resistance, regional dynamics, and global political and economic relations that must frame our understanding of this watershed moment in the long, sad history of modern Palestine.
A crossroads for Palestinian resistance?
It has been argued by some that Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a blessing in disguise for the movement for a free Palestine, for the simple fact that it opens up the possibility of a united Palestinian resistance. Indeed, the disunity among the factions – Hamas, Fatah, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), et al – has been one of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles the Palestinian resistance has faced in recent years. So, it comes as no surprise that some interpret this latest development as a potential spark that could rekindle the flame of Palestinian unity and resistance.
While the idea of unity within the Palestinian resistance might indeed become reality – such a development would be watershed moment in the history of anti-colonial struggle – it is equally possible that it is more a product of wishful thinking than of cold, hard analysis of material reality. To that end, it is necessary to raise some profoundly difficult questions.
First and foremost concerns the relationship that political factions and religious institutions in Palestine have with outside actors such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, and others. With the open conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar that erupted earlier this year, battle lines within Palestine have also been drawn. While the Saudis have long been financiers of the Palestinian Authority and its President, Mahmoud Abbas, Qatar has long been the patron of Hamas, seen by many as still an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. This fundamental rivalry has been at the root of much of the internal turmoil within the Palestinian resistance, where loyalties and patronage have, to a large extent, determined the politics.
But, of course, as with all things in the Arab world, the issue goes much deeper than that. Saudi and Qatari money earmarked for development programs and aid quite often gets filtered down to religious networks — sometimes directly into the pockets of influential clerics, who then push the political agenda of the given patron.
The Syrian conflict was perhaps the perfect example. As one Palestinian activist explained to me last year, the “Syria problem” became a rallying cry for corrupt religious and community leaders who used it to raise more money and bolster their own positions. As a result, rifts within Gaza and the West Bank grew, further dividing the resistance.
What makes these facts all the more troubling is in considering how they might impact a move for unity with elements within Palestine, and in the Palestinian diaspora, which are politically, ideologically, and/or financially aligned with Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah, the Syrian Government, and Iran. While the Gulf monarchies have made the calculation that the war in Syria is lost, that does not mean they’ll simply cede political ground to their avowed enemies in Tehran, Damascus, and Southern Lebanon. Equally, who’s to say that it would all be “water under the bridge,” as those factions that have backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah aren’t going to be too keen on allying with their enemies who, from their perspective, backed the wrong side.
Of course, there’s also the burning question of what exactly the Palestinian resistance should be. If it’s an armed intifada or uprising that will be launched, then surely no reasonable person can expect victory against the overwhelming military capabilities of Israel — 11th strongest military in the world, backed as it always is by the United States — without some form of outside intervention. And who might intervene?
Surely people aren’t expecting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), or the Emir of Qatar, or Egypt and Turkey’s presidents-cum-dictators, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan respectively, to initiate a broad regional war on behalf of the Palestinians who offer nothing in terms of political advantage to the aforementioned opportunists. Palestinians are an oppressed people rendered politically powerless by the fascist state of Israel and its patron in Washington. Their struggle may be righteous, but material reality cares little for righteousness, and much for power.
This is not to say that armed resistance is a fool’s errand. Rather, it is an attempt to demonstrate that, from all indications, the necessary preconditions for a successful armed insurrection don’t seem to be present. Naturally, the political winds can shift rapidly but, for now, it seems that the Palestinians will be resisting alone, as usual.
But what of the regional dynamics? How do the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, and among the major players, impact the resistance in Palestine?
A region at war
Though it is often seen in a vacuum, the Palestine issue cannot be divorced from the broader dynamics of the region. And, given the heightened tensions and turmoil in the Middle East – the war in Syria, Saudi-Qatar conflict, the war in Yemen, the Islamic State’s rise, etc. – Palestinian resistance must be examined as part of a broader regional transformation.
Hezbollah has for years been seen by many, especially the Israeli state, as a principal belligerent on the side of Palestinians. Since 2006 and Hezbollah’s resounding victory over Israeli military forces, the organization has become perhaps the primary force for armed resistance against Israel. As such, the organization would undoubtedly have a vital role to play in any potential resistance. But questions remain about Hezbollah’s capabilities in the wake of its intervention in Syria and, to a lesser degree, Yemen.
According to a survey of news coverage of Hezbollah fighter funerals, more than 1,000 Hezbollah fighters were killed in combat in Syria in the four and a half years of Hezbollah’s involvement (September 2012 – April 2017). As Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council noted:
This number [1000 killed]…must be treated as an absolute minimum, since the Hezbollah leadership has every reason to downplay losses. Giving full information on number of killed would increase domestic (Lebanese) resistance to Hezbollah’s involvement and reveal more information about its forces to its adversaries… Of these Hezbollah fighters, 60 were identified as al-Qaid al-Shahid (martyred commander) or al-Qaid al-Maydani (field commander), which distinguishes them from the rank-and-file members of the Shia militia.”
Aside from demonstrating how much blood Hezbollah has shed on the battlefields of Syria, the death toll indicates that, at the very least, Hezbollah’s battlefield leadership has been significantly impacted by the losses. Naturally, new commanders rise to take the place of their fallen leaders but, as any general could tell you, it’s not easy to replace competent field commanders. Indeed, some of those leaders were veterans of the 2006 campaign against Israel, and it remains an open question whether that experience can truly be replaced.
Of course, Hezbollah has also been actively involved in Yemen — if not in military actions, then certainly as advisers. According to a 2015 Financial Times exclusive, Hezbollah sources in Beirut were quoted as saying that Houthi fighters had “trained with us in Iran, then we trained them here and in Yemen,” and that Iran was “probably” supplying weapons to the Houthis. One Hezbollah source told the FT that “We are the guerrilla experts, so we give advice about the best timings to strike back, when to hold back.”
While these points are disputed by some in the organization and its supporters, the fact remains that Houthi capabilities, to say nothing of tactical victories, owe much to Hezbollah as a role model, if not a direct mentor.
As Paul Salem — Vice President for Policy Analysis Research, and Programs at the Middle East Institute — noted recently:
Hezbollah has been building up its presence in Yemen and Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has raised the Houthi cause and the war against Saudi Arabia there as a main cause of Hezbollah in recent speeches. Hezbollah’s role in the missile that was launched at Riyadh on November 4 only punctuated the threat. Saudi Arabia fears that Hezbollah and Iran could build missile systems that threaten the kingdom from Yemen as they have done against Israel from Lebanon.”
So, it seems that the war in Yemen, like that in Syria, has implications for the Palestinian resistance. While it’s highly unlikely that Yemen has drained much in terms of material resources from Hezbollah, that conflict has made Hezbollah into a direct belligerent against Saudi Arabia, a significant escalation from the indirect proxy conflict in Syria.
The implications for Palestine should be self-evident: why would Saudi Arabia, and MBS specifically, allow Hezbollah to become the leading edge of a fight against Israel when the organization remains the leading edge of the ongoing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran in both Syria and, to a lesser extent, Yemen? The contradiction here makes it apparent that, in the context of Palestine, any appearance of unity would be mere window-dressing. Beneath the surface, these forces would remain in conflict.
Also, one has to wonder whether MBS would attempt to extricate himself from the self-created quagmire in Yemen by using Palestine as a bargaining chip. Might Riyadh make a backroom deal wherein they sell out the Palestinian resistance in exchange for political and/or military support from the U.S. in Yemen? This would make some sense given President Trump’s recent comments urging the Saudis to end the blockade of Yemen, a statement widely regarded as an indication that Washington’s political cover for Saudi war crimes was wearing thin. Could we see a renewed backing from Washington in exchange for non-interference in any Palestinian uprising? It is a definite possibility.
And, given the recent news of the death of former Yemeni President Saleh, the chances of an escalated war against the Houthis have grown exponentially. The Saudis will need U.S. political cover and military/logistical support to prosecute their war.
Not to be forgotten, the ongoing diplomatic conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar complicates the situation in Palestine further. As mentioned above, the financial and political backing that each has provided to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas respectively will undoubtedly spill over into a proxy conflict in Palestine, one that could torpedo any chance of a truly unified resistance to Israeli oppression and occupation.
Of course, one cannot forget Turkey’s ongoing war against the Kurds, and the criminal networks and death squads operating under the Islamic State banner that have been decimated in recent months. The latter is particularly crucia,l as southern Lebanon had become a major battleground against ISIS fighters, which culminated in the controversial agreement between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Government and ISIS to provide safe passage for more than 300 ISIS militants and their families.
All these factors complicate the picture of a unified Palestinian resistance. Do they make it impossible? Of course not. However, it must be understood that any uprising in Palestine is connected to, and not divorced from, the politics of the region.
But what of the global players, specifically China and Russia? How might they factor into this increasingly complicated mosaic of political relations?
Beijing, Moscow, and competing interests in Palestine
China and Russia have, each in its own way, begun asserting themselves in the Middle East. Naturally, Russia’s military intervention in the war in Syria has made Moscow a belligerent in the region, with all the baggage that comes with that role. In contrast, Beijing has begun asserting itself economically, which is fairly typical of the Chinese strategy for power projection. These differing approaches, each capitalizing on the strengths of the respective countries, further complicate the picture in Palestine.
In response to the move by Trump, China’s foreign ministry spokesman reaffirmed that China “support[s] the just cause of the Palestinian people to restore their legitimate national rights and stand behind Palestine in building an independent, full-sovereignty state along the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.” This was, of course, a reiteration of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s address to the Arab League in 2016, in which he proclaimed that Beijing supports East Jerusalem as the capital of a sovereign Palestinian state.
Rhetoric aside, it should be remembered that Palestinian President Abbas’ visit to China over the summer resulted in Xi making a new four-point proposal for Palestine, which not only reiterated China’s stance on East Jerusalem, but also offered financial support in the form of Chinese companies investing in Palestine to develop industrial parks and solar power plants.
China sees in the Middle East a linchpin of its Belt and Road Initiatives, which attempt to develop land-based access for Chinese goods to Europe and elsewhere in the global economy. China has offered $15 billion in investment for large-scale projects in the Middle East, but does China have the political stomach for wading into the minefield of Middle East politics?
Would China also jeopardize its chances to build the Red-Med railway in Israel — the plan to connect the Red Sea Israeli port of Eilat with the Mediterranean port of Ashdod — which could be seen as arguably the most geopolitically important project China has in the entire Middle East?
This rail project would effectively offer China an alternative to the Suez Canal, which today is one of the most important commercial shipping chokepoints in the world, and one on which China relies heavily. For China, the big prize at the center of all its Belt and Road initiatives is unfettered, mostly land-based access to the European market. The Red-Med railway provides that. Would Beijing risk it in order to take a stand for Palestine? This remains to be seen.
And then there’s Russia. While the Kremlin’s gamble on intervention in Syria has paid off in terms of winning the war for Assad’s government and securing Russia’s place as patron and protector of Syria, it has also made Russia hated in much of the Middle East, especially among Sunni power brokers, from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar to Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine itself. The Russians have put themselves in a strategically complex scenario wherein they have more influence with one side (Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and the Shia alliance) while also losing, or at least significantly weakening, their ability to play all sides.
Add to that the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have a warm, friendly relationship that both have worked very hard to cultivate, obviously for self-interested reasons. Netanyahu needs Putin as leverage against Washington to continue to ensure that the Americans not only remain loyal to Israel, but that they increase their backing as a means of undermining Putin. For his part, Putin needs Netanyahu and the Israelis both as a political chess piece against Washington, and because of the significant cultural ties between Russia and Israel, in the form of Russian-Jewish emigres who account for a significant proportion of Israel’s population.
Russia needs to maintain a good relationship with Israel to placate not only internal forces inside Russia, but also to maintain influence in Israeli politics.
It’s also critical to note that — while Russia has intervened in Syria and has generally been seen as more pro-Iranian, pro-Shiite than its western counterparts — the Kremlin still eyes the Shia warily, and views Iran as part friend and part enemy.
As Khaled Yacoub Oweis of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told Deutsche Welle earlier this year, “Russia supposedly gave the green light when Israel attacked pro-Iranian military targets. In one way or another, Putin has warned the Iranians about tangling with Israel.” Such is the balancing act Putin maintains in the Middle East where, despite Russia’s involvement in Syria, Moscow remains close to Israel and, at least tangentially, the United States.
And of course, there are also economic factors at play in the Israel-Russia calculus. Russia’s only two significant exports remain energy and military hardware, both of which factor into Israel’s position.
Being leaders in military technology and innovation, the Israelis see partnership with the Russians as a lucrative investment. Similarly, the Russians want Israeli know-how on surveillance and security, counter-terrorism, drone technology, app development, and much more. The Russians don’t see any such potential with any of their Arab partners.
As for energy, the Russians are keenly aware that the Israelis want to exploit Eastern Mediterranean gas reserves (i.e., Leviathan field), which could potentially make them into exporters to Europe. This would significantly weaken Russia’s position at a time when Europe is looking for ways to diversify away from reliance on Russian gas. This complicates the relationship further. Needless to say, a cost-benefit analysis for Russia is likely the outcome, and if I were a betting man I’d say that Moscow, on balance, sees little benefit from direct support for Palestinians.
Out of turmoil, freedom?
Trump has wittingly or unwittingly opened a political can of worms, one that cannot simply be closed again. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will undoubtedly have severe ramifications for the politics of the region. But what impact will it have on Palestinians themselves, on the future of a free Palestine?
No one can say for certain how this conflict will play out; whether we’re going to see a third intifada or just some anger and indignation followed by deafening silence. Sadly, Palestinians have become all too accustomed to a world long on rhetoric but very short on action in their defense.
The struggle for a free Palestine is the anti-colonial struggle, it is the struggle against oppression and subjugation. In that struggle, it is the responsibility of people of conscience to defend the rights of Palestinians to determine their own future, and free themselves of the ghastly occupation to which they are subjected.
Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel may have been just the blunder the world needed to finally, collectively defend Palestinians in their struggle for freedom.