Originally published in the Washington Post
Whoever crafted President Trump’s Jerusalem address was well-informed. Trump’s speech aimed to soothe the hurt feelings of Palestinians and to assure them that even though he is diverging from previous U.S. policy, he would care for what was most important to them.
While recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump took care to mention that the final borders of Israeli sovereignty in the city are at the moment disputed and should be determined by both parties.
However, what was most significant for Palestinian and Muslim ears was the president’s emphasis, twice, on the current status of Jerusalem’s holiest and most contested site. Trump directly called for maintaining the “status quo” at “the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif.” Moreover, addressing the future, he noted that “Jerusalem is today and must remain a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall … and where Muslims worship at al-Aqsa Mosque.”
For the Western audience, these words seem like a banal affirmation of the obvious. For the Muslim world, and especially for Palestinians, they are of immense importance.
Trump’s words imply that as far as the United States is concerned, Jews will not be able to pray on the Temple Mount. In signaling that the current arrangement on the holy mountain will continue, Trump actually used, perhaps for the first time, a pro-Muslim dog whistle.
Trump’s gesture seems aimed to minimize the chances of a violent outburst from the Palestinian population. The president’s team knows that the core interests of Palestinians are connected directly to the holy site, quite above and beyond Jerusalem as a whole. The White House knows that the threat of change to the status quo on the site – which allows Jews to visit the mountain but not to engage in any religious activity there – served as a significant motivation for the violent cycles Israel experienced in the summers of 2014 and 2015. This July, another outburst was barely averted, and only after Israel removed metal detectors it had placed at the entrances to the site.
The point is this: Concerning Jerusalem (and often the Middle East in general), it’s not about politics but about identity. The Palestinian national identity is linked fundamentally to Haram al-Sharif. Its origins are rooted in the Ayyubid period (12th and 13th centuries), when the land’s Muslim rulers encouraged Islamic migration to Jerusalem, while providing a binding ethos: The city’s Muslim populace, veteran and recent, will become its holy sites’ protectors. Since then, the Arabs around the holy city have conceived of themselves as defenders of the faith’s sacred site.
Furthermore, with Israel neutralizing the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem – closing its institutions, dismissing its leaders – the Palestinian population in and around the city has become depoliticized, underscoring Palestinians’ religious identity instead and further emphasizing their connection to the great mosque. Thus, whenever the impression arises that al-Aqsa is threatened, they react. The president’s words, therefore, aim to assure them that there is no such threat.
On the Jewish side, things are a bit more complicated. For most of the Zionist movement leaders in the past, the Temple Mount carried no specific appeal. Even after Israel’s conquest of the ancient city in the 1967 war, 50 years ago, what interested Israel’s leaders and Jewish populace was the Wailing Wall, not the mountain above it. Over the past two decades, however, the situation has dramatically changed, with the Temple Mount becoming for the secular right and religious Zionists a focal point of nationalistic feelings and identity. The shift is correlated to the looming threat, from their point of view, of political compromise in Jerusalem as part of a peace initiative, and is parallel to a growing disappointment concerning the settlement project as a secure, reliable way to execute control over the land. For many, the Temple Mount has substituted the settlements as the central project and primary symbol of Israel’s sovereignty.
Accordingly, growing numbers of Israeli Jews ascend the Temple Mount, in a clearly stated attempt to exert domination on the site. The status quo, agreed upon since 1967, forbids Jewish worship at the site. But this point has become the focus of contention, with Temple Mount activists attempting to undermine it. These attempts contributed to violent escalations in the past. Indeed, in October 2015, after a wave of Palestinian terrorism, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to state clearly, “Muslims will pray on the Temple Mount, and non-Muslims will visit there.” That was the first time an Israeli prime minister had voiced a clear agreement to the discriminatory conditions, as far as Jews are concerned, of the site’s status quo.
Trump’s words are the first such spoken from the president of the United States. They promise the Muslim world, and especially the Palestinians, that what is most important for them will be protected. For Israel, they represent a blow to any attempt to open the conditions of the arrangement on the Temple Mount. It seems that in exchange for a symbolic declaration concerning Israel’s capital, Trump has given the Palestinians an actual achievement on al-Aqsa.