Quarterly Updates for (16 May 2017 — 15 Aug 2017)

U.S. pres. Donald Trump attempted to advance his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative this quarter, traveling to the region on his first major international trip as president. While both the Israeli govt. and the Palestinian leadership were receptive to Trump’s efforts, each faced constraints—growing challenges from the extreme right in PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s case, and sharpening internal tensions within Palestinian ranks.

The Trump initiative stalled in 7/2017 after a deadly attack on Israeli forces in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Israeli govt. then imposed new restrictions on Palestinians at Haram al-Sharif, sparking a wave of resistance across the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). After 2 weeks of boycotts, protests, and violent clashes, the Israeli authorities rolled back the restrictions, and the Palestinians claimed victory. Meanwhile, at the height of the crisis, PA pres. Mahmoud Abbas took the unprecedented and—for the Palestinian public—long-awaited step of suspending PA security forces (PASF) coordination with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

 

THE TRUMP INITIATIVE

The unstructured policy-making process in the Trump White House shrouded the admin.’s peace efforts with uncertainty, particularly concerning the possible relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel. Ahead of Trump’s visit to Israel and the oPt on 5/22–23, a 5/16 report in Haaretz brought the issue to the fore. Several senior U.S. officials reported that, although Trump remained committed to moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he was in no rush, and intended to make the move at some point during his first term in office. Meanwhile, U.S. amb. to the UN Nikki Haley said (5/16) that she didn’t think the status of Jerusalem—which the proposed embassy move would affect—should be subject to IsraeliPalestinian negotiations at all, staking out what would be an entirely unprecedented position for the U.S. in the history of the PalestinianIsraeli conflict. “Obviously, I believe that the capital [of Israel] should be Jerusalem and the embassy should be moved to Jerusalem,” she said. Over the next 2 days, Trump admin. officials made conflicting comments on the embassy’s relocation. Some stated that Trump intended to announce the move during his trip, while others claimed that he had decided against moving the embassy altogether (see “The Ownership of the U.S. Embassy Site in Jerusalem” in JPS 29 [4] for more on this issue).

The Palestinians took a proactive stance on the Trump admin.’s vaguely defined diplomatic initiative. During his meeting with his U.S. counterpart on 5/3, Abbas reportedly pushed for a resumption of peace talks based on the offer former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert had made to Abbas in 2008 (see JPS 37 [2]). According to a 5/18 report in the Times of Israel, the Palestinians were preparing detailed proposals to present during Trump’s 5/22–23 visit, focusing primarily on economic growth in the oPt—which would be linked to Palestinian participation in the peace talks—including the construction of an airport in the West Bank, a cement factory in Bethlehem, and new hotels on the Dead Sea. The Palestinians apparently dropped preconditions for resuming direct peace talks with the Israelis. Ever since thensecy. of state John Kerry had failed to mediate a peace deal in late 2013 and early 2014 (see JPS 43 [3, 4]), Abbas maintained that he would not resume negotiations, or even meet with Netanyahu, if the Israelis did not commit to a settlement freeze and to the freeing of prisoners who were under a deal with Israel that had been scheduled to take place at the time of the Kerry talks. There had been signs last quarter that Abbas was willing to drop this demand.

Israel’s security cabinet approved (5/21) a goodwill package of measures designed to facilitate Palestinian economic growth the day before Trump’s arrival. They included expanding a border crossing nr. Tulkarm, extending the operating hours of the Allenby Bridge between the West Bank and Jordan (see “Movement and Access” below), agreeing to the expansion of an industrial zone nr. Hebron into Area C of the West Bank, and green-lighting the construction of thousands of new Palestinian homes in Area C adjacent to major Palestinian cities. Netanyahu reportedly overcame dissent from some ultranationalist mbrs. of his cabinet in order to show Trump he was serious about the peace effort. Their displeasure with the proposed goodwill package reflected the public’s growing frustration with Trump, according to a poll conducted by Smith Research (Jerusalem Post, 5/18). Researchers found that Trump’s popularity among the Jewish Israeli public had declined precipitously since his inauguration, with only around 56% deeming him more pro-Israel than pro-Palestinian in 5/2017, down from 79% in 1/2017.

Despite the ultranationalists’ growing animosity, the U.S. and Israeli media portrayed the trip positively. Trump pleased Israeli crowds with his visits to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall (the first sitting U.S. president to visit the latter). In his major policy speech during the trip, Trump linked (5/22) the joint U.S.-Israeli struggle against Iran with Israeli-Palestinian peace, saying that the Arab states were willing to work with Israel and normalize relations if Israel ended its occupation of Palestinian lands.

Trump’s troubles began on 5/23 when he traveled to the oPt. The Palestinians were not satisfied with the package of economic measures that the Israeli security cabinet had approved on 5/21. Senior PA advisor Ahmad Majdalani called (5/22) it “meaningless” and an “attempt to beautify and market the occupation.” Trump’s meeting with Abbas in Bethlehem on the morning of 5/23 initially appeared to go well. At a joint press conference afterwards, the U.S. president stated, “[Abbas] assures me he is ready to work toward [peace] in good faith, and [Netanyahu] has promised the same.” According to a White House statement that evening, the Palestinian pres. told Trump he was ready to “begin negotiating [with Israel] immediately,” without any mention of preconditions. However, neither Trump nor Abbas offered any details on a path forward. Later reports revealed that Trump had brought up the contentious issue of the PA’s monthly stipends to Palestinians convicted of serious crimes against Israelis and to the families of “martyrs,” that is, those killed in confrontations with Israeli forces. Adopting the Israeli govt.’s position on the issue, Trump reportedly said that “peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded, and even rewarded.”

Combined with the absence of a clear U.S. plan, Trump’s focus on this issue antagonized the Palestinians. On 6/1, PA officials described Trump as “angry” about the stipends, that he had made allegations about anti-Israel incitement within the PA, and that Abbas had found the meeting “uncomfortable.” Blaming the tension on an Israeli campaign to undermine Abbas, PA officials accused Netanyahu of showing Trump a video purporting to prove that Abbas supported incitement.

Although a senior U.S. official said (5/23) that Trump was hoping to build on the trip by putting together a “common set of principles” to restart peace talks, it quickly became apparent that the U.S. had no real strategy for advancing the process. Tensions and disagreements following Trump’s visit lingered, and the initiative petered out in 6/2017.

On the Israeli side, internal disagreements over settlement growth and frustrations with Trump’s unfulfilled pledge to relocate the U.S. Embassy animated public debates after the visit. The settlement issue was more contentious; Netanyahu’s ultranationalist rivals were still chafing at his decision to limit construction (see JPS 46 [4] and “Settlement Growth in the Trump Era,” below). On 6/1, Trump signed a waiver delaying the embassy relocation for another 6 mos. U.S. law mandates that the embassy be moved, but also affords the president a national security waiver on a biannual basis (see Doc. D6 in JPS 24 [4] for the text of the 1995 law in question). According to a White House statement announcing the waiver, “[Trump] made this decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America’s national security interests. But, as he has repeatedly stated his intention to move the embassy, the question is not if that move happens, but only when.” Netanyahu’s office offered a temperate reply: “Despite the disappointment over not moving the embassy at this point, Israel appreciates Trump’s friendly words and his commitment to moving the embassy later on.”

On the Palestinian side, the main sticking point was the PA’s stipends to Palestinians convicted of serious crimes against Israelis and their families, which were to cost the PA NIS 552 m. (approximately $153 m.) in 2017. In addition to lobbying the U.S. govt. on the issue, the Israeli govt. had reportedly begun to deduct money from the monthly transfers of tax revenue it collects on behalf of the PA proportional to the amount the PA spent on this program (Jerusalem Post, 5/29). Senior Israeli sources said (5/29) that the decision to garnish revenue transfers was taken at the highest levels in the summer of 2016, without appropriate Knesset oversight. The relevant Knesset mbrs. (MKs), however, supported the principle behind the deductions. The Knesset’s Ministerial Comm. for Legislation approved a bill that would effectively codify the cuts on 6/11, and the full plenum gave it preliminary approval on 6/14.

The Trump admin. fixated on the issue as well. U.S. secy. of state Rex Tillerson said (6/14) that an “active discussion” between U.S. and Palestinian officials on the question continued, and that Palestinian officials had told him privately that they planned to end stipends to the perpetrators of serious crimes. The Palestinians, for their part, said that the Trump admin. understood the complexity of the issue, adding that they hoped to develop a formula to bar certain people from receiving the monthly payments.

Disagreements over the details of that formula persisted, however, leading to a tense meeting between Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner and Abbas in Ramallah on 6/21. According to the Times of Israel (6/23), Kushner’s position on the issue “enraged” Abbas. Even though Kushner reportedly downgraded the U.S. demand from total discontinuation to stipends to just 600 individual Palestinians serving life sentences in Israeli prisons, Abbas was furious that the U.S. was toeing the Israeli line. He argued (6/21) that the payments were a “social responsibility,” and complained that Israel was using the issue as a pretext to squirm out of peace negotiations.

Significantly, Democratic and Republican allies of Israel in the U.S. Congress were advancing legislation similar to the bill percolating through the Knesset around the same time. Dubbed the “Taylor Force Act,” after a U.S. citizen killed by a Palestinian on 3/8/16 in Tel Aviv, the bill conditions certain forms of U.S. aid to the Palestinians on the termination of these stipends (see Congressional Monitor, JPS 46 [4]). The Senate Foreign Relations Comm. approved the bill in a bipartisan vote, 16–5, on 8/3, and observers said it had a good chance of passing into law.

By the end of 6/2017, the momentum behind U.S.-led peace efforts was all but spent, and there was rampant speculation that the Trump admin. was preparing to turn its attention elsewhere. U.S. officials denied the rumors (6/25 and 6/27), although Trump’s Special Rep. for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt returned to Israel for further talks on 7/11, a trip that did not lead to any reported breakthroughs on the major issues. By mid-July, the Trump admin.’s attention had turned entirely to the situation in Jerusalem, where long-simmering tensions at Haram al-Sharif had again boiled over into violence.

 

SETTLEMENT GROWTH IN THE TRUMP ERA

While the Palestinians were downplaying their opposition to Israeli settlement growth in the context of U.S.-led peace efforts, a number of settlement-related conflicts kept the issue at the forefront of Israeli govt. debates, with ultranationalists pushing for accelerated growth and Netanyahu, wary of incurring U.S. ire, cautioning restraint (see JPS 46 [4]). As Netanyahu’s ultranationalist rivals comprise a significant portion of his ruling coalition, they were able to force his hand. Consequently, the Israeli govt. announced numerous new settlement projects throughout the quarter and rolled back a previously unreported plan from 2016 that would see Palestinian towns in the West Bank expanding into Area C.

Following weeks of ultranationalist complaints about a de facto freeze in settlement growth, the Higher Planning Council of Israel’s Civil Admin. met on 6/6 and 6/7 to discuss new construction proposals. Over the course of the 2 days, the council advanced plans for at least 2,000 new settler housing units across the West Bank, including 102 in Amichai, the new settlement planned to house the former residents of the illegal Amona outpost (see JPS 46 [2, 3, and 4]). It wasn’t enough for the settlers, though. The Yesha Council, a settler umbrella group, outraged by what they viewed as an insufficient number of new units, disputed the official numbers proposed and pushed for a face-to-face meeting with Netanyahu on 6/8. In a statement released after the meeting, a Yesha spokesperson said that it was a “positive” conversation, but that the tension was “not over yet.” DM Avigdor Lieberman then lashed out (6/11) at settler leaders, arguing that more construction would “stretch the rope beyond its limit, and thus put the entire settlement enterprise at risk,” presumably a reference to international condemnation and the possibility of undermining Trump’s initiative. Lieberman also said (6/11) that the govt. had approved more homes for construction by mid-2017 than it had in any year since 1992. “There isn’t and there hasn’t been a better govt. to take care of the Jewish settlements in [the West Bank],” he added.

Just as that conflict was fading from the front pages of Israeli newspapers, Israel’s Channel 2 reported that the govt. had approved a plan to expand the municipal boundaries of Qalqilya, allowing for the construction of 14,000 new Palestinian homes in Area C of the West Bank (it was later reported that only 5,000 new homes were to be built). This previously unreported plan had reportedly been approved in 9/2016 as part of Lieberman’s “carrot-and-sticks” policy (see JPS 46 [2]). After the Israeli govt. confirmed the report, several Likud MKs demanded that Netanyahu cancel the plan, and the Samaria Regional Council (SRC), which provides services to settlements in the n. West Bank, promised (6/14) to challenge it in the courts. “Has this government lost all restraint? Have we gone completely mad?” SRC head Yossi Dagan asked (6/14). “You can’t speak in 2 voices: on the one hand claiming you’re doing everything for the settlements, and on the other stopping construction in the settlements while advancing Arab construction.” Netanyahu said (6/18) he would reconsider. Israel’s security cabinet ultimately decided (7/12) to temporarily suspend the Qalqiliya expansion plan.

Aside from the rare and tepid condemnation from a State Dept. spokesperson, the Trump admin. had little to say about these developments. After Israeli construction crews began (6/20) work on the Amichai settlement, for example, a State Dept. official said, “we see settlements as something that does not help the peace process.” The U.S. position remained the same throughout 7/2017. The Jerusalem Municipality announced plans for 800 new settler residences in East Jerusalem on 7/6, and a White House official merely reiterated (7/6) the Trump admin.’s opposition to “unrestrained settlement activity.” Despite intermittent reports of a secret Trump-Netanyahu agreement limiting settlement growth (6/23 and 7/11), none were confirmed, and the status of Israel’s settlement enterprise remained unchanged by the end of the quarter.

Meanwhile, Palestinian frustration with the new settlement construction, along with the Trump admin.’s bland pronouncements, grew throughout the quarter. When Netanyahu advanced (6/22) a project to expand the Beit El settlement nr. al-Bireh with 300 new housing units, a number of Palestinian officials went beyond their standard calls for international pressure. They specifically called out the Trump admin. and implied that Palestinian participation in the U.S.-led peace efforts would be conditioned on a change in policy. Abbas may not have been insisting on a settlement freeze as a precondition to peace talks anymore, they implied, but some sort of shared understanding would need to be established. As one Palestinian official put it, “it is impossible to speak about a [peace initiative] that will bring the sides to serious negotiations as long as Israel continues massive construction in the settlements with a green light from the U.S., or thunderous silence in the face of this construction.” PLO secy.-gen. Saeb Erakat eventually went on the record (8/1) describing the Trump admin.’s “silence regarding the intensification of Israeli colonial settlement activities,” as well as its waffling on the principle of 2 states based on the pre-1967 armistice lines, as a barriers to its own peace efforts (see JPS 46 [3, 4]).

 

VIOLENCE IN JERUSALEM

As the quarter opened, nearly 2 years had passed since persistent tensions at Haram al-Sharif erupted in 9/2015 to become the surge of Palestinian resistance, random attacks, and protests that Palestinians describe as the habba. The habba later spread to the rest of the oPt (see JPS 45 [2, 3]) and while it has gradually subsided in the intervening years, the underlying issues remain unresolved. A significant portion of the Israeli population, including several MKs, openly called for increased Jewish access at Haram al-Sharif. Palestinians feared the Israeli govt. would acquiesce, upending the delicate status quo that has governed the site since Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967. This quarter, a number of violent incidents in the Old City gave the Israeli govt. the opportunity to impose new restrictions and security measures, which in turn led to further revolt.

In the waning days of Ramadan, 3 Palestinian youths attacked (6/16) Israeli border police at Damascus Gate with knives and guns at dusk. They fatally injured 1 guard and lightly injured several others before being shot and killed in situ. As has become standard procedure post-habba, IDF troops raided the attackers’ family homes in Dayr Abu Mash‘al nr. Ramallah, threatened punitive demolition, and put the village on lockdown. The Israeli authorities also reinstated policies that had been suspended during Ramadan. “You’ve destroyed the Ramadan atmosphere in [the West Bank],” Yoav Mordechai, IDF Coordinator of Govt. Activities in the Territories (COGAT), wrote on Facebook (6/16). “Three bastards who undertook this cowardly terror attack received praise from Fatah, who falsely claimed they were innocent. This is incitement to terror. In response to this heinous crime and the incitement by Fatah officials to win popularity, Israel has decided to take action, the first is revoking 250,000 entry permits [for West Bank Palestinians visiting family in Israel] and revoking work permits from the kin of the terrorists.” Israeli officials also rescinded permits for West Bank Palestinians to visit Haram al-Sharif on weekdays, except Fridays. Israeli forces then arrested (6/17) 350 West Bank Palestinians in East Jerusalem on 6/17, put them on buses, and sent them home. Israeli police violently dispersed (6/18) Muslim worshippers protesting the crackdown at Haram al-Sharif; 3 Israelis were injured during the ensuing clashes, and over 30 Muslim worshippers were injured, among them Turks, South Africans, British nationals, and Americans in addition to Palestinians. Some injuries were a result of rubber-coated bullets fired by Israeli forces. (Middle East Monitor, 6/19).

In the wake of the 6/16 attack and the Israeli response, Palestinian protests slowly died down and Jerusalem returned to its usual levels of tension. Netanyahu was not satisfied, however. On 6/21, he met with several top defense and security officials, and approved a new “security strategy” for Damascus Gate that reportedly included new “surveillance points,” improved lighting systems, and other measures. Announcing the new strategy on 6/22, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan claimed that there had been 32 major attacks at the site in the previous 2 1/2 years, and Netanyahu said (6/22) that Damascus Gate had become a “symbol of terror.” The following week, he announced a temporary lifting of his ban on Israeli MKs and ministers visiting Haram al-Sharif, following a petition from Likud MK, Temple Mount movement leader, and Orthodox rabbi Yehuda Glick. Netanyahu had imposed the ban in 10/2015 at the height of the habba in order to quell Palestinian fears that Israel intended to seize control of the sanctuary. The trial period for lifting the ban was set for 7/23–27, and if it went well, Netanyahu would consider lifting it permanently.

As this trial period loomed, Palestinian social media roiled with suspicions and frustrations. Then, on 7/14, 3 Palestinian citizens of Israel (PCI) launched an attack on Israeli police in the Old City. Armed with guns and knives, the 3 assailants ran out of Haram al-Sharif and attacked 2 Israeli police officers, killing both before fleeing back into the compound. Israeli border police chased the attackers inside, there was an exchange of fire, and the 3 assailants were killed.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Israeli police evacuated the site, raided the premises, interrogated at least 60 Islamic Waqf employees and worshippers, and canceled Friday prayers. The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Shaykh Mohammad Hussein, who was detained by Israeli forces as he led Friday prayers, said (7/14) it was the first time Israeli forces had prevented Muslims from participating in Friday worship at the sanctuary since the annexation of the city in1967. Unrest quickly swept through East Jerusalem; clashes and violence led to at least 3 settler injuries and the arrest of 25 Palestinians, including Hussein.

Meanwhile, Abbas phoned Netanyahu— reportedly the first time they spoke directly in mos.—to condemn the morning’s attack, denounce violence on both sides, and call for the sanctuary to be reopened. Netanyahu, for his part, argued that Israeli forces needed to maintain security at all costs, and insisted that no change had been made or would be made to the status quo at Haram al-Sharif. The Jordanian govt., which administers the sanctuary through the Waqf, echoed Abbas’s call on the Israeli authorities to reopen the sanctuary, to which senior Israeli officials responded, “instead of condemning the terror attack, Jordan chose to blast Israel, which protects the worshippers and maintains the freedom of worship at the site. . . . All the sides, including Jordan, should maintain restraint and avoid inflaming the situation.”

The situation, however, was already inflamed, and Netanyahu turned up the heat by announcing (7/15) that Israeli forces would “gradually” reopen Haram al-Sharif on 7/16 with a series of new security measures, including metal detectors. The Islamic Waqf then called (7/16) for a Muslim boycott of the sanctuary, kicking off 2 weeks of protests and clashes in Jerusalem and across the oPt (during which 5 Palestinians were killed and hundreds were injured; see Chronology and Photos from the Quarter for details). The boycott gained strength and Muslim worshippers opted to pray en masse outside on the streets of the Old City instead of passing through the metal detectors.

A variety of Palestinian political factions united behind the boycott, organizing protests and lending their weight to the Waqf’s call for the removal of the metal detectors. Netanyahu refused to budge on the metal detectors, despite reported opposition from Israel’s Shin Bet and other security services. According to a Palestinian official (7/19), the U.S., Jordan, and Saudi Arabia also began pressuring Israel to remove the metal detectors.

On the heaviest day of violence, Abbas made (7/21) a major announcement in support of the protest. He ordered the suspension of all PA contacts with the Israeli govt., including PASF coordination with the IDF, until all new security measures at Haram al-Sharif were removed. “This decision is not at all easy,” he said. “But the Israelis ought to know that they are going to be the ones who will ultimately lose, because we do a lot to defend their security and ours.” Codified in the 1995 Oslo II agreement, PASFIDF coordination is deeply unpopular among Palestinians and has been so for many years. The Palestinian leadership has maintained the program regardless, and since the demise of the Kerry-led peace effort in 3–4/2014 in particular, security coordination has become so controversial that the PA is being forced to consider suspending the program. After a heated debate in early 2015 (see JPS 44 [3]), the PLO Central Council called (3/4/15) for an end to the program, and the PLO Exec. Comm. pledged (3/5/15) to implement their call at the appropriate time (see JPS 44 [4]). The installation of new metal detectors at Haram al-Sharif and the enormous public support for the Waqf apparently made 7/21 the appropriate time.

The day after Abbas’s announcement, Mordechai said (7/22) that Israel was “willing to examine alternatives to the metal detectors as long as the . . . alternative ensures the prevention of the next attack,” hinting that at least some Israeli leaders were balking at the new security measures. Israel’s security cabinet met that night to discuss the situation. While ministers echoed Mordechai’s position, Lieberman held the line, claiming that Israel would “manage” without security coordination with the PA. “It’s their decision,” he said. “It’s not that the security coordination is an Israeli need; it’s a Palestinian need first and foremost, and therefore if they want it, it will continue. If they don’t want it, [it] won’t.”

After another day of heightened tensions and protests at Haram al-Sharif on 7/24, the security cabinet decided to remove the metal detectors. In a statement, the cabinet said it had “accepted the recommendation of all of the security bodies to incorporate security measures based on advanced technologies and other measures instead of metal detectors in order to ensure the security of visitors and worshippers in the Old City and [at Haram al-Sharif].” According to the Israeli press, the new security measures were set to include “smart cameras” with heat-sensing technology and facial recognition capabilities, and that their installation would be part of a NIS 100 m. (approximately $28 m.) plan that could take up to 6 mos. to implement.

The Islamic Waqf convened on the morning of 7/25 to discuss the new Israeli position. It issued a statement rejecting “any changes [to the status quo], including technological measures,” and reiterated an earlier call for the sanctuary to be open to “Muslim worshippers in a completely free manner to ensure freedom of worship.” Later in the day, Abbas again backed up the Waqf, reaffirming that he did not plan to resume PA relations with the Israeli govt. until the new security measures “cease[d] to exist.”

After yet another day of tension and violence, the Israeli press reported (7/26) that Netanyahu had ordered security checks at Haram al-Sharif to be conducted using only handheld metal detectors, a practice in place prior to the 7/14 attack. Israeli forces removed the last of the metal detectors and infrastructure for the new “smart cameras” that night. The Islamic Waqf then met again on 7/27, when the mufti confirmed that the situation at the sanctuary had returned to normal and called on worshippers to resume prayers there. After meeting with Hussein in Ramallah, Abbas celebrated the victory, saying, “All stood as one, didn’t blink, didn’t hesitate, and didn’t tire.” Hundreds of Muslim worshippers gathered at Haram al-Sharif for a “victory party” and the day’s jubilation with chanting, loud music, and dancing was marred by only minor clashes with Israeli security forces.

Meanwhile, the Israeli authorities handed over to their families the corpses of the 3 PCI killed on 7/14. Thousands of Palestinians marched through Umm al-Fahm at a joint funeral, celebrating the victory and mourning the loss.

As Palestinians celebrated, the Israeli public expressed disappointment with the govt.’s resolution of the crisis. In a poll taken in the wake of the security cabinet’s 7/24 decision to replace the metal detectors with “advanced technologies,” Israel’s Channel 2 found (7/25) that 77% of respondents thought the govt. “capitulated” by removing the metal detectors, and 67% described Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis as “not good.”

In response to the backlash, Netanyahu tacked to the right on other issues. Israeli officials said (7/27) that he had proposed, in meetings with U.S. officials, that some Palestinian communities in Israel be transferred to a hypothetical future Palestinian state in exchange for incorporating key settlement blocs into Israel. Lieberman, who has been advocating such transfers for years, tweeted (7/27), “Mr. PM, welcome to the club.” That same day, Netanyahu came out in favor of the death penalty for a Palestinian who killed 3 Israeli settlers at Halamish on 7/21 (see Chronology for details). “He should simply not smile anymore,” Netanyahu said. He also defended his handling of the Haram Al-Sharif crisis to his cabinet on 7/30: “I must make decisions coolly and judiciously. I do that out of a view of the big picture, a wide view of the challenges and threats that are facing us. Some of them are not known to the public and as is the nature of things, I can’t go into details.”

The atmosphere at Haram al-Sharif remained tense through the end of the quarter, but the relative calm largely held. Abbas and the Palestinian leadership opted not to resume security coordination with the Israeli govt.—at least not right away. A senior PA official said (7/29) that as long as Muslim access to the sanctuary remained unrestricted, the plan was to slowly resume coordination at pre-crisis levels.

During the final weeks of the quarter, the PA’s plan changed, however. Palestinian officials pointed to the 7/27 closure of the Beit El DCO checkpoint (nr. al-Bireh) and raid of a civil police investigation office on 8/2 as evidence of a new Israeli strategy. Checkpoints run by the District Coordination Liaison Offices (DCO) allow prescreened Palestinian businesspeople, NGO personnel, and VIPs to circumvent the regular IDF checkpoints that are far more arduous and onerous for Palestinians. “We clearly understood [the closure of the checkpoint as] a punitive measure,” one official said. “It is likely we will see more of this . . . in the future, [with Israel] claiming it has to do with the lack of coordination” (Haaretz, 8/3). The following week, a senior PA official laid out (8/7) the conditions for resuming security coordination: cessation of all IDF activity in Area A of the West Bank and PA takeover of certain border crossings. “The Palestinian leadership will reject any security coordination Israel requests until Israel halts daily assaults, shootings, undercover raids, abductions of Palestinian lawmakers, officials, and children in Palestinian cities and refugee camps in the PA-controlled territories,” an unnamed PA source added (Ma‘an News Agency, 8/9).

Throughout the last weeks of the quarter, Israeli officials and the Israeli press continued to allege that security coordination with the PA was, in fact, ongoing. A PA spokesperson confirmed as much on 8/7, admitting that PASF contact with the IDF had continued, but only in “humanitarian” cases

 

FINDING A PATH FORWARD

The Haram al-Sharif access crisis was the first major test for the Trump admin.’s nascent peace initiative, forcing the admin. to show its hand and thereby pointing to the possible foundation for future peace efforts.

As the crisis wound down, it became clear that the Trump admin. had lost credibility with the Palestinians. Greenblatt, in particular, was accused of siding with the Israeli side throughout the crisis (see Doc. B3, JPS 46 [4], for excerpts of the interview Abbas gave to Doha’s al-Watan.) On 7/27, a Palestinian official said that Abbas had recently rejected a request for a meeting with the U.S. envoy because “such meetings fail to offer anything new”(Haaretz, 7/27). “Abbas is disappointed by the admin.’s conduct,” the official elaborated. “As of now, Palestinians have made efforts to meet U.S. demands, but as of yesterday, the Americans have not presented anything new.” A few days later, a senior PA source noted (7/31) the Palestinian leadership’s frustration with the Trump admin.’s behavior during the crisis. “When the metal detectors were installed, they supported that,” the official said. “Then they supported the installation of smart cameras, and then, when there was talk of manual checks, they supported that, too.”

Further reinforcing the Palestinians’ suspicions, a surreptitious tape recording surfaced on 7/31 in which Kushner spoke candidly with a group of congressional interns about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the leaked recording, Kushner described the Israeli decision to install new metal detectors at Haram al-Sharif as “reasonable,” and said that “there may be no solution” to the conflict, adding that the White House was still “thinking about what the right end-state is.” PLO Exec. Comm. mbr. Hanan Ashrawi went on the record in response, arguing that Kushner was not equipped to mediate a peace effort: “Kushner isn’t aware enough of the details and developments in the region and he tends to conspicuously adopt the Israeli position” (Haaretz, 8/7).

From the Israeli side, the success of the Trump admin.’s efforts looked equally dubious. “As of now, Trump’s peace initiative looks like it is completely bogged down,” a senior Israeli official said on 7/31. “The Palestinians have lost trust in the peace negotiation teams. Greenblatt is rapidly approaching the status of persona non grata, just like [Amb. to Israel David] Friedman and Haley. The president is not involved, and it looks like he has distanced himself considerably from Middle East affairs, particularly given the serious problems he has inside the White House” (Al-Monitor, 7/31).

The Israeli side was running into problems of its own in 8/2017. Ending mos. of speculation, the Israeli police confirmed (8/3) that PM Netanyahu was under investigation for alleged bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The Israeli press then revealed that the PM’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, had agreed to testify against Netanyahu in exchange for a reduced sentence in his own case. The police had questioned the PM several times earlier in the year, and the investigation was already undermining his authority, but this revelation seemed to point to the possibility that Netanyahu could be indicted and lose the premiership. To many, the affair was reminiscent of the 2007–8 peace negotiations that failed, in part, because of then PM Ehud Olmert’s own scandals and resignation (see JPS 38 [1, 2]). To others, such as Nabil Shaath, a senior advisor to Abbas, the comparison was only instructive insofar as it highlighted the foundational differences between the peace process in 2008 and 2017: “We cannot even draw a parallel to Olmert, because unlike Netanyahu, Olmert had a worldview that included a future arrangement and . . . negotiations were making progress. Netanyahu’s situation is totally the opposite; the man is just looking for ways to evade any commitment to the 2-state solution, and now with the investigations we have to be prepared for moves that could be devastating to the diplomatic process” (Haaretz, 4/7).

Regardless, the Trump admin. carried on. On 8/11, a senior U.S. official said that Kushner, along with Greenblatt and Dep. National Security Advisor for Strategy Dina Powell, would visit Israel, the oPt, and various Arab states in late 8/2017. “Trump has previously noted that achieving an enduring IsraeliPalestinian peace agreement will be difficult, but he remains optimistic that peace is possible,” the official said. “To enhance the chances for peace, all parties need to engage in creating an environment conducive to peacemaking while affording the negotiators and facilitators the time and space they need to reach a deal” (Washington Post, 8/11).