The Ticking Time Bomb of Jerusalem

Israeli police disperse Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem's Old City
Israeli forces disperse Palestinian protesters outside the Damascus Gate entrance to Jerusalem's Old City on December 7, 2017 Photo: Ahmad Gharabli, AFP

Last Wednesday, President Donald J. Trump announced his intention to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He broke with decades of U.S. foreign policy by unilaterally recognizing Jerusalem – a city claimed by both Israel and Palestine – as the capital of the Jewish state. This step has sparked outrage across the Middle East and the international community.

Mr. Trump’s move will have ramifications across the region, which is already fraught with wars and conflict. In the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, power is being concentrated in the hands of a few, creating concern both at home and abroad.

Tacit U.S. approval of Saudi Arabia’s campaign against Yemen is leaving the latter on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. At the same time, the cozy relationship between Mr. Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman – Saudi’s new boy on the block who has recently been locking up unwanted family members on corruption charges – is excluding the U.S. State Department from Middle East plans.

Of major concern domestically is Russia’s and Iran’s growing influence in the region and the threat – if Saudi line of action continues against Qatar in particular – of a conflict with Turkey, a military response from Iran, or an intervention by Hezbollah.

At home, Mr. Trump’s “advisers” are now left to pick up the pieces of this declaration, which has upturned years of U.S. diplomacy. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has snubbed U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who plans to visit the region later this month, since there are “no conditions” for dialogue. The U.S. is left further isolated following the one-sided egotistical actions of its president that only broke the international diplomatic consensus.

Mr. Trump’s own assessment of his achievements is clear. Soon after his inauguration, he appointed his son-in-law, Mr. Kushner, as an adviser to broker a peace deal in the Middle East. Now, with a bit of familial support, they claim to be achieving the goal.

The president has stated that he was determined to facilitate the peace process, but this is far from the case. The Palestinians are left with little: they only have “moral sovereignty” and control over segments of the occupied territories, which are becoming increasingly fragmented due to the construction of Israeli settlements and installation of checkpoints and road blocks. At the beginning of this year, there were 98 checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank alone.

So who are the winners of this declaration, as it certainly isn’t the Palestinians? The declaration detracted attention away from the so-called Russia-gate at home but has simultaneously further exposed the president’s blinkered approach. General ire across the Middle East region has left U.S. citizens, mainly diplomats, fearful of leaving their homes as demonstrations and flag burnings grow in intensity.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can only be smiling at this news. Not only has the far-right leader of Israel gained formal recognition of Jerusalem for his people but the declaration may deflect attention from the corruption investigations surrounding him. What could be better for him as he celebrates the Jewish New Year?

Yet, there is the possibility that the alliance between the right-wing prime minister of Israel and the right-wing president of America could work if they exert pressure on initiating new peace moves. But Mr. Trump would have to work hard to achieve this and actually come up with some actions to support his words. In reality, however, this pairing will no doubt result in the opposite and only reinforce the Israeli right and their expansionist ambitions.

But is this just the start? Jerusalem is a major scalp for Mr. Trump. In contrast to many past U.S. presidents whom he described as “weak,” Mr. Trump has taken a strong, albeit highly controversial and inflammatory, step by moving the embassy from Tel Aviv.

This now raises the question of other embassies which remain vacant throughout the region — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and Egypt to name but a few. Played diplomatically, filling these positions could ease tensions. Yet, based on this week’s developments, the probability of this is slim, and reinforcement of U.S. alliances with Saudi Arabia will only lead to the detriment of the region.

The victims of this dangerous, one-sided declaration, which many within the White House are still trying to fathom out, are, as always, the Palestinians.

Violence has long plagued the area. Just this summer, there were protests in Jerusalem as Israel tried to force its hand and install metal detectors at entrances to the Temple Mount in the Old City.

Flare-ups have been frequent at checkpoints throughout the West Bank as Palestinians commemorated the Nakba — the 1948 Palestinian exodus — and the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which announced support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people.”

“Jerusalem is a time bomb. We are being squeezed. We cannot tolerate this much longer,” said one activist at Ramallah’s largest checkpoint, Qalandia.

In May, outrage was tangible during mass hunger strikes amongst prisoners in Israeli jails demanding better conditions and treatment.

Mr. Trump has perilously ignored the strength of feeling amongst Palestinians against the continued invasion of their land and the ongoing construction of settlements in contravention of international law.

But glimmers of hope exist as the U.N. Security Council members met last Friday and widely condemned President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan have also agreed to work together to get Mr. Trump reconsider. But this is a faint hope. Mr. Trump firmly believes that his ill-considered decision is in the best interests of the U.S. and “the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

But is this unilateral counterproductive move more reflective of Mr. Trump’s impatience and vain nature than any desire to encourage a change towards peace? Will he reconsider? History has not revealed many examples of bullies changing their minds.