Trump’s dangerous Jerusalem gambit

 07 Dec 2017 - 8:12

Ever since the US government recognised Israel in 1948, no one has ever doubted where Washington stood in terms of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs. But while the US has always been pro-Israel, it tried, at least in theory, to adhere to international law and the worldwide consensus while dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is true that the US has often vetoed many actionable resolutions on the question of Palestine, but its position has always been clear when it came to the issue of Jerusalem. The US, like the rest of the world, has repeatedly refused to acknowledge Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem, and continued to consider East Jerusalem as an occupied territory, just like Gaza, Nablus or Ramallah.

International law stipulates clearly that the Israelis are not allowed to change the status of the areas under their military rule. The fourth Geneva Convention, which was created to regulate long-term occupations, clearly opposes an occupying power in changing the status of areas under its occupation.

When the White House is more pro-Israel than the Congress

In the past, the US Congress, which has often been called “Israeli occupied territory”, passed several laws in favour of Israel that infringe on the executive branch’sconstitutional authority over foreign policy. But consecutive presidents have consistently opposed these laws and claimed presidential waivers to postpone their implementation.

The Jerusalem Embassy Act, which was signed into law in 1995, was one such example. It threatened to defund the Department of State if the US didn’t move its embassy to Jerusalem, but, at the same time, allowed the president to sign a waiver every six months to avoid making such a drastic and implosive decision. Every president since then has regularly signed the waiver. President Donald Trump also signed the waiver in June 2017 - a move that allowed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to work towards “bringing peace to the Middle East”. But things have changed in the last six months.

Kushner found himself at the centre of the expanding investigation into Trump campaign’s alleged links to Russia, and, as a consequence, his influence in the White House has been diminished. 

Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence’ influence over Trump and his inner circle has gradually increased. Pence, a Christian Zionist, has long been a leading voice in favour of relocating the US embassy to Jerusalem. And, on Tuesday, it looked like he has finally achieved his goal, as President Trump reportedly called his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, to inform him of his intention to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

If Trump goes through with the move, the US will become the first country to have its embassy in Jerusalem. This will overturn decades of an international consensus on the status of the highly contested city, half of which was occupied by Israel following the 1967 War.

Playing ‘deal games’

Of course, even now, we cannot be certain that Trump will follow through. It is possible that Trump is once again trying to play a “deal game” - upping the ante with the threat of not signing the waiver in order to eventually sign the waiver but, in the meantime, make a possibly unbinding declaration from the White House that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.

Even this half-measure is full of problems. If he calls “united Jerusalem” the capital of Israel, he will for sure completely alienate Palestinians and will be throwing his own son-in-law’s efforts to bring calm to the region under the bus. On the other hand, if he calls West Jerusalem Israel’s capital, he will infuriate the Israelis and thus not gain much by it.

The puzzle remains, then: What will Trump ultimately gain from this move, other than pleasing his already happy base? Not much.

Any action Trump may take regarding Jerusalem, whether moving the embassy or simply recognising the city as Israel’s capital, would also reflect his lack of understanding of the conflict and the role of Jerusalem in it. Jerusalem is not only a Palestinian issue, but also an Arab and Islamic one. The historic city is also an important symbol for Christians and peace-loving people from any religion around the world.

Even if the US president moves the embassy to Jerusalem, no other important country in the world will follow his lead. The most powerful western alliance, the European Union, has already declared that it will certainly not support such a unilateral decision. The Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic States have also rejected the move. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to cut diplomatic ties with Israel if the US recognises Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Moreover, Trump has been warned by Palestinians and a number of prominent Israelis not to tinker with a sensitive issue like Jerusalem.

So the world agrees that Jerusalem cannot and should not be subject to the president’s juvenile “deal games”.

Another way

If the US president is committed to moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, there is, however, a much easier and acceptable way: The Trump administration can officially accept the two-state solution. Trump can then recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and East Jerusalem as Palestine’s. 

Such a declaration will allow the president to fulfill his electoral promise of moving the embassy to Jerusalem, while, at the same time, supporting the efforts of his peace envoys to lay the foundations for a lasting peace deal. Anything short of that will not weather the test of time and that of fairness and justice. The choice is clear.

Unfortunately, it appears that Trump is choosing war over peace and injustice and occupation over justice, freedom and independence.

The writer is an award-winning Palestinian journalist.