For Abbas, come hell or intifada, Jerusalem is the hill to die on
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Opinion

For Abbas, come hell or intifada, Jerusalem is the hill to die on

The PA president is leading the charge against American plans to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the embassy; if violence ensues, it will have stemmed from the top

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Mahmoud Abbas gives a speech during a meeting of Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 21, 2017. (FLASH90)
Mahmoud Abbas gives a speech during a meeting of Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 21, 2017. (FLASH90)

Even if he doesn’t intend it, US President Donald Trump’s policy shift on Jerusalem is likely to drop Israel into a stew of trouble that it’s doubtful the country wants. Even if only a sliver of the threats issued in the past days from Palestinians and Arab states are followed through, Israeli citizens are liable to pay a heavy price for Trump delivering, with the widespread support of mainstream Israeli leaders, on his campaign promise of moving the embassy.

Trump is expected on Wednesday to declare US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to order the start of work to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, White House officials confirmed Tuesday.  US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is legitimate, almost banal; the same goes for moving the embassy there. But the warnings coming from even moderate Arab states show how sensitive the Jerusalem issue is and how problematic it can be to deal with even for them.

While the embassy move is expected to take months if not years, merely the prospect of it, as well as the recognition of Jerusalem, have inspired a blizzard of warnings of possible violence in the West Bank and elsewhere.

US President Donald Trump arrives for a speech at the Rotunda of the Utah State Capitol on December 4, 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah. George Frey/Getty Images/AFP)

In a series of phone calls Tuesday, Trump made clear to Arab leaders his plans to move the embassy and recognize the city as Israel’s capital. He spoke about it with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Saudi King Salman. The leaders of all of the Sunni Arab states considered to be “moderate,” even those that have covert security ties with Israel, warned of the grave consequences of the move and of an escalation in violence because of the disregard for Muslim sensitivities around the world.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco, the Arab League, and the top Islamic body al-Azhar also all emphasized that moving the embassy could have serious consequences.

Leading the chorus, rather than being led this time, is Abbas. He has spoken in recent days with every Arab and European leader he could and warned them that an action like this could lead to violence on the ground.

Should there be an actual increase in violence, it won’t stem from attacks by “lone wolves” or smaller Palestinian factions; rather, the descent into chaos will have been orchestrated from above, by the chairman himself, just like in the bad old days of Yasser Arafat.

For Abbas, Jerusalem is like a red flag to a bull. When he was negotiating for the Palestine Liberation Organization at Camp David in 2000, he was among the leaders of the camp who stood against a deal giving up Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount. Any time Jerusalem moves to the top of the Middle East agenda, Abbas speaks up, and loudly.

Israeli police square off against rock throwers during a riot in the neighborhood of Wadi Joz on July 21, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Last July, amid the crisis over metal detectors at the Temple Mount, he made the unprecedented move of freezing security coordination with Israel, and now he is practically ordering his men to escalate violence. His Fatah faction published on Tuesday an official announcement calling for “days of rage” on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and for mass protests.

It is likely that a green light will be given to the Tanzim militia to send people out into the streets and to his security forces to look the other way.

Abbas, at least for now, looks determined not to cede to Hamas or anyone else his leading role in the battle for Jerusalem, no matter the price. He may not care too much if the Palestinian public blames him for the collapse of the Fatah reconciliation process with Hamas, but he will not allow himself to be accused of surrendering and relinquishing Jerusalem.

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