Trump and Jerusalem: New York Times analysis tells the story behind the headline

At the end of last week, the front page of the printed version of The Washington Post featured a four-column, above-the-fold photo of tightly framed, silhouetted figures dashing through  billowing black smoke and menacing red flames -- which is what you get when you burn vehicle tires.

The headline below it read: “Palestinians, Israeli troops clash over U.S. stance.” A subhead warned, “Region braces for more violence after Trump’s decision on Jerusalem.” (The online version linked to here differs.)

That Post story was an example of traditional newspaper, hard news journalism. It summarized the previous day’s body count, included the usual reaction quotes from the usual sources sprouting the usual threats and warnings we've heard time and again from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Those quoted, in accordance with their well-known positions, either castigated or praised President Donald Trump for his decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s national capital and pledge to someday, but not just now, actually move the U.S. Embassy from coastal Tel Aviv to inland Jerusalem.

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What the piece failed to do, however, was to connect the dots and explain the story behind the headline by placing it in its current Middle East context. It excluded, in short, the sort of background that’s critical to understanding the latest twist in a long-running, exceedingly complicated and highly combustible story such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Is the peace process, which has been moribund at best, now forever dead? Is another Palestinian intifada, or widespread violent uprising, about to explode? Why did Trump do this now and what might we expect now that he's shattered, at least verbally, decades of U.S. Middle East policy simply by saying out loud that Jerusalem is Israel’s political capita, as it has been in reality since 1948?

Those are questions we cannot fully answer. But may I suggest that rather than relying on daily roundups or if-it-bleeds-it-leads TV reports, you pay as much or more attention to the many quality news analysis and opinion columns being penned by long-time Middle East-watchers. I am talking about the journalists, academic researchers, think-tank experts and other credible sources who have made the conflicted region central to their life’s work.

Do so and you’ll likely have a better shot at grasping the situation’s changed dynamics. Time brings change, and changes in the Middle East since the 2011 Arab Spring have utterly reshaped the contours of the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Here’s what I mean. I cite this particular analysis from The New York Times because it was the first of its kind that I noticed in the elite Western media, which dictate so much of the news flow.

That, and because over the days that followed its narrative, crafted by three of the Times most experienced and respected Middle East correspondents, became the dominant elite-media narrative.

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- For decades, the idea of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital served as a rare and powerful rallying cry that united the Arab world.
Kings and dictators stumped for it, priests and imams prayed for it, jihadists and protesters died for it, and militant groups and political parties campaigned for it — naming their television stations, boulevards and even themselves, after Al Quds, the Arabic name for the holy city.
In officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on Wednesday, President Trump struck what many considered the death blow to those aspirations, handing a major victory to Israel in the perennial struggle between Jews and Arabs for control of the Holy Land.
But as Arab and Muslim leaders raised their voices to condemn the move, many across the Middle East wondered if so much had changed in recent years that the real Arab response would amount to little more than a whimper.
“ ‘Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine’ joins ‘Palestinian refugees are going back home one day’ in the let’s-hope-it-will-happen-but-it-never-will department,” Mustapha Hamoui, a Lebanese blogger, wrote in a rueful tweet.

Within days, two of the Times most high-profile opinion writers -- one decidedly liberal, and one equally identifiable as a conservative on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, published columns that pretty much agreed with that first analysis I cited just above.

Why am I focusing on the Times? Because, love it or hate it, the organization that proclaims itself the newspaper of record remains, in my opinion, the industry’s gold standard when it comes to dictating what news is worth knowing. What the Times says guides others.

In short, I think the Times’ influence went a long way toward mainstreaming the calculation that the Palestinian cause has lost the power to incite it once had in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Not with ISIS, even in its weakened state; and not with Syria and Iraq, not with the agony of  Yemen, and certainly not with the escalating Saudi-Iran, Sunni-Shiite competition, not with everything else that's been unleashed since 2011.

Moreover, reads this consensus, average Palestinians -- as opposed to the minority of hard-boiled activists and their entrenched political leaders -- are simply too tired and too demoralized to engage in yet another round of violence. Historically, violence has cost them far more than they gain, which is generally limited to some additional foreign aid and meaningless United Nations proclamations.

What they really want -- again, according to this view -- is jobs and economic growth, and perhaps above all a period of calm, none of which they gain by going to war again.

Yes, more violence -- perhaps even a major Palestinian terror attack in Jerusalem -- may ensue.

Yes, the Arab world has issued its pro-forma condemnations.

Yes, the United Nations and the Christian churches with members in the Arab world have condemned Trump’s move.

Yes, his announcement further dimmed Palestinian aspirations and cemented the link between Trump and Israel’s right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But none of this is strikingly unique or truly game-altering. All this has, since Trump’s White House ascendancy and even longer, been part of the current Middle East reality. Much of it is merely part of the conflict’s unyielding cycle.

Hamas may fume, Turkey may threaten to sever diplomatic relations with Israel yet again, nations such as Malaysia may bluster that its military is prepared to fight on behalf of Palestinian claims.

But the bottom line is that despite Trump’s bewildering stabs at redirecting American policy, much of the Arab and Muslim world still depends greatly on the U.S. military shield. And despite their pro forma official statements of anger, key Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are today more aligned then ever with Israel, in large measure because they share intelligence with the Jewish state in their joint battle against Islamic terrorists who kill far more Muslims than they do Jews or Christians.

Lastly, these same Arab states have become more concerned with keeping Shiite Iran in check than they are with the woes of their fellow Sunni Palestinians.

Do I think Trump acted primarily out of his desire to reward his political base; white, conservative evangelicals and some big-donor conservative American Jews? Yes, I do.

Do I think he should have acted more diplomatically and provided Palestinians with some hope that some day, some part of predominantly Arab East Jerusalem might still become the capital of their wished-for independent nation. Yes, I do, but diplomacy isn't exactly his strong suit.

Do I think that the entire sequence of events was one more Trump White House ploy to shift focus away from the Russia campaign collusion investigation? Yes, I think that's certainly possible. But who can say for sure.

In the meantime, let me again suggest that the wealth of journalistic analysis and opinion pieces we’re seeing are your best hope for connecting the dots. Read those you think are the most informed and read those you think are off the wall.

The deeper story likely falls somewhere in between.

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