Last week, when President Trump announced that the U.S. would no longer participate in the pretense that Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel, dire predictions came forth. There were warnings of immediate violence, global blowback, and even of a third intifada.
All of the traditional Middle East photo-ops occurred. A tiny group of locals in Bethlehem were quick off the mark, immediately setting fire to some American flags they had stockpiled for just such an occasion. Those half-dozen people were soon on every news bulletin around the world. Similar scenes occurred elsewhere. Last Friday was meant to be a particular focal-point of the “rage” of the fabled Arab street. In fact, as even the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen admitted, there were more journalists hanging around the Damascus Gate last Friday than there were protestors.
Then on Monday morning, when a Bangladeshi immigrant’s pipe bomb went off early at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York, there were people who immediately seemed to want this to be blowback in New York for a D.C. announcement about Jerusalem. “New York terror bombing ‘carried out in retaliation to Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital’” ran one headline, using a pro-ISIS propaganda outfit as a source. It is almost as though part of the world wants the Palestinians to be more violent and angry than they are being and will be disappointed in them if they do not behave worse.
All of which adds to an already strange situation when it comes to international attitudes towards the Palestinians that centers on two oddities.
The first is the enormous inherent contradiction in the message that is given out about the Palestinians by their own supporters. It is the same internal contradiction which I have summed-up in the past as the “Say my religion is peaceful or I will kill you” problem. In the case of the Palestinians, the conundrum might be condensed as: “The Palestinian people only want peace, and if you don’t give it to them on precisely their terms, then they will burn everything down.”
One thing that is an absolute constant in all of this is the assumption that the Palestinians and their supporters cannot help themselves when it comes to helping themselves to a bit of extra-curricular violence. Other domestic and international events do not proceed in this manner. When Obamacare was passed, everybody recognized that there would be significant opposition from Republicans, but nobody suggested that Republicans might riot and burn things down. When Brexit negotiations get sticky, nobody warns the EU that British citizens living in Spain might be tempted to burn down the Costa del Sol if British negotiators don’t get their way. Yet supporters of the Palestinian cause constantly find themselves in the odd position of trying to persuade the world that the Palestinian peoples and their leadership just want peace, but that when the smallest thing doesn’t go their way, they resort to violence.
The second oddity within what has become the standard response to the Palestinians is that it continuously cedes to the men of violence the right to direct the political weather. It is the contention of various European governments — among others — that the Jerusalem move is “provocative.” Yet it seems to date (if attacks on Jews and anti-Semitic incidents in recent days in Sweden, Amsterdam, and London are anything to go by) that some “Europeans” are more provoked than the Palestinians. If the Palestinians don’t behave worse, then the charge that the American move is “provocative” will be proved wrong and the European stance on Jerusalem could be proved wrong with it.
In any case, as American and European governments should have learned by now, relying on the men of violence to dictate your policy positions one way or another is an unwise game to play. For if there is one lesson all of us ought to have learned from the last few decades, it is that there are people out there who will find absolutely anything offensive. One day it might be the U.S. president recognizing the realities on the ground in Jerusalem. The next, it might be an editorial decision at a small-circulation newspaper in Scandinavia. If you grant the mob the right to decide your nation’s editorial policies, then you’ll have to eventually cede to them a veto over your nation’s foreign policies. Last week’s decision stands on its own merits. But the fact that it has so far brought a markedly underwhelming response shows that the U.S. has stared down the men of violence and — for the time being at least — come out from the encounter on top.