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The Jerusalem promise
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 02 - 2017

When the Arab Summit convenes in March in the Jordanian capital Amman, Arab leaders are hoping that the new US president would not have already issued a decision to move his country's embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in line with a promise he made during his presidential campaign, of which he was reminded earlier this week by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is set to bring the issue up in a few weeks during the first summit between the two men in Washington DC.
Trump and Netanyahu are scheduled to meet 15 February, with the Israeli prime minister being the first leader from the region to be received by the new US president at the Oval Office.
According to remarks made by Trump to the Christian Broadcasting Network Friday, he would be studying the proposal to move the US embassy to Jerusalem “in the not-too-distant future”.
Trump, who has already spoken with a few Arab leaders, qualified the issue as a “big, big decision”.
The traditional policy of the US, as well as the rest of the permanent members of the UN Security Council and also the EU, has been to keep all embassies in Tel Aviv pending a final settlement of the Arab-Israeli struggle — or at least a final peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel took the western side of the holy city of Jerusalem in the 1948 War and seized the eastern side in the 1967 War. Ever since, every single Israeli government has qualified Jerusalem as the “eternal and unified capital of Israel.”
But according to international law, East Jerusalem is territory occupied by military force and should be subject to negotiated settlement. Throughout the long and multi-tracked path of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the Palestinians have always stated that East Jerusalem is the capital of a future independent and viable Palestinian state.
The same language is reflected in all resolutions adopted by subsequent Arab summits since the adoption of the Arab Peace Initiative at the Beirut Arab Summit in 2002.
Today, Palestinian-Israeli peace talks are almost a thing of the past, given Israeli refusals to put a hold on the construction of illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories in line with internationally agree prerequisites of the peace process.
Arab diplomats speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly on the matter said that today Israel seems to be in a perfectly comfortable position to demand the US move its embassy to Jerusalem. This, they added, is not just about the Israeli realisation that Trump could actually go ahead and do it, but it is also about the fact that the Arabs, either too busy with their own internal problems or too busy worrying about Iran, are not set to dissuade Washington from moving on with its plan.
“Let us face it, Israel has the best of relations with leading Arab countries these days. This is not just about Egypt, that is in very close coordination with Israel over the war against the Islamic State group in Sinai, but it is also about Saudi Arabia whose foreign minister met repeatedly last year with Israeli officials to organise anti-Iran positions,” said an Arab diplomat.
However, a Washington-based Arab diplomat said there are some attempts to convince the US not to jump into this decision.
“What we had heard was that Trump and Netanyahu had agreed tentatively to make the move in May, to mark the 49th anniversary of the establishment of Israel, but I think this might not happen so soon. After all, there are many within the ranks of the US State Department and even the Pentagon who would caution against this move, not just because they know that this could ignite a new Intifada in the Palestinian territories and turn the situation across the Middle East upside down, but also because they know that even if Arab governments decided to unilaterally show a poised reaction to this move there is no guarantee on how angry or contained the public reaction might be,” he added.
According to the same Washington-based Arab diplomat, clear messages have been sent from the Arab world to the White House on the matter. These messages have warned of the possible negative consequences of this move on the image of the US president in the Arab world, in a way that might complicate the chances of most Arab leaders to pursue close strategic anti-Islamic State group cooperation with Trump — at least publicly.
“We have to take into consideration that the recent decision of the US president to put a ban on nationals of seven Muslim states travelling to the US made public opinion across Arab and Muslim countries quite apprehensive,” he said.
Meanwhile, he added, in their messages to the US on the matter, several Arab capitals have also warned that this move would completely isolate all pro-peace leaders within the Palestinian camp and allow for a wider state of radicalisation.
Some Arab capitals have asked leading European capitals to encourage the new US president to “give time” to the decision before jumping into it. These capitals, including Cairo, have instead asked for time to try to re-energise peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis in order to give some prospect of a final settlement for a highly frustrated Palestinian public that is being provoked by repeated decisions of the Israeli cabinet to build new settlements on occupied Palestinian land.
However, Arab diplomats say that if the worst came to the worst their reaction would have to be “rational”. Nobody, they added, would act to create a diplomatic crisis but they would rather issue independent statements to decry the decision as harmful to the chances of peace in the Middle East and a violation of international law.
None of the Arab diplomats who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly expected anything near a collective Arab decision against the US on the matter, or even an emergency Arab summit, provided such a decision would not spark a wild and angry public reaction.
The same Arab diplomats said that the focus of Arab action now is twofold: First to try to convince Trump not to rush this decision, even if he is convinced to take it. This they don't find impossible in light of the considerable awareness in the political corridors of Washington over the matter, and in light of the understanding most European capitals have expressed on the issue; and second, to try and use the Arab Summit as an opportunity to promote a new beginning for Palestinian-Israeli talks, although most sources, including Palestinians, seem to agree that Palestinian leaders are reluctant to restart Palestinian-Israeli talks in the absence of firm Israeli commitment to suspend the construction of illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.
Earlier this year a Middle East peace conference in Paris appealed to both Palestinians and Israelis not to take action that might hamper the path of peace talks. This should have meant Netanyahu refraining from building new settlements, but he never did.
A Palestinian diplomat said that if Israel and the US were to agree on moving the US embassy to Jerusalem then it would be irrelevant to talk of creating conditions to start peace talks, because “things would simply get out of hand.” (see Editorial)

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