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Palestinians, wake up: Trump's pledge to move embassy to Jerusalem is no idle threat

If we want to stop the embassy move - and the threat of another intifada - we have to move quickly, before it's too late

US President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly pledged to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, most recently in response to the UN Security Council resolution that condemned Israeli settlements in the West Bank. 

But since the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, several US presidents have failed to keep their promises to move the embassy despite pledges on the campaign trail to do so. So the question is whether Trump will actually come through on his promise. 

What makes Trump’s threat serious this time around is his extreme support for Israel. He is madly in love with it and especially with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

On Tuesday, his pledge appeared to take tangible steps forward after three Republican senators introduced legislation recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the embassy there from Tel Aviv.

Yet it must be remembered that in 1995, the US Congress passed a similar act which recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and stated that the US embassy should move no later than 1999. Successive presidents have postponed its implementation every six months.

Still, what makes Trump’s threat serious this time around is his extreme support for Israel. He is madly in love with it and especially with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

And what makes the pledge dangerous is that it comes at a time when divisions between Palestinians are only increasing and when, consequently, Palestinian leadership is weakening.

As a piece in Foreign Affairs suggested last month, recalling Ariel Sharon’s infamous visit to Jerusalem in 2000 that set off an intifada that raged for four years, a US embassy move could easily trigger a new uprising. Yet repeatedly, members of Trump’s campaign and his aides have promised the move.

Recently, Israel’s Channel 2 news reported that staffers from the Republican Party involved in the Trump campaign, already on the hunt for a piece of land for the new embassy, had settled upon the site of the Diplomat Hotel.

It is as if we are being told that a building already exists and all that is needed is the decision to move the embassy to it.

Reponse on mute 

It won’t be easy to move the embassy to Jerusalem, a measure which would not only contravene international law and the legal status of Jerusalem, but would also contradict US policy that has been in place for many years.

Some Israeli circles have warned that the country could become an extremist nationalist religious state in the absence of a White House master to deter it 

But it’s not as if Palestinian or Arab officials have done much to make the move more difficult: their reactions have been entirely tame and inappropriate considering the seriousness of the issue.

Not one political, media or diplomatic campaign has been organised to explain the unprecedented blowback that would come from Palestinian, Arab, Islamic and international communities if the measure was actually adopted.

At first, senior Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat ignored the issue. Later, he ruled out the likelihood that Trump will actually follow through on his pledge, seeming utterly oblivious to the hostility of Trump and his team toward Palestinians and Arabs and, even more so, towards Muslims.

Finally, he came out and said that Palestinians take the likelihood of the embassy move seriously and will have an appropriate response, potentially withdrawing Palestinian recognition of the state of Israel.

Drawing a line

The statements Trump made and the opinions he expressed during his campaign and after his victory are extremely disturbing. These include remarks from a top aide who said that, for Trump, settlements are not an obstacle to peace.

Trump also sought to dissuade both the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi from tabling the draft resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank at the UN Security Council and the Obama administration from allowing the resolution to pass by not vetoing it.

“As to the UN, things will be different after January 20,” Trump tweeted, suggesting that he will try to ignore the resolution, something that won’t be easy given that it has gained wide support from the international community.

The decision by a significant number of Western countries to vote in favour of the resolution, and the support Germany showed for it despite not being a Security Council member, the abstention of the US - all of this was not about settling a score between Obama and Netanyahu, but about a global concern for the repercussions that Trump’s victory could have for the US and the world.

The UN Security Council resolution was meant to be an impediment to prevent the situation in the Middle East from further deterioration.

Stopping things from getting worse

When the Obama administration went as far as supporting a UN Security Council resolution that defined the basis, objectives and frame of reference for the peace settlement, when it abstained from the vote, it meant to draw a line that neither Trump, nor Netanyahu can cross after it is gone.

Some Israeli circles have warned that the country could become an extremist nationalist religious state in the absence of a White House master to deter it as has been the case in the past. Indeed, Trump would only encourage this.

Other circles have welcomed his election victory and considered it to be an opportunity to get rid, once and for all, of the two-state solution, and to annex existing settlements or even the whole of Area C, to expand settlement building and to remove all restrictions imposed on construction.

However, even those who welcomed his pledge, including the Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, did not expect him to move the embassy because, they assumed, the State Department and legal experts would warn him against the repercussions of doing so.

So instead, some have demanded that the Israeli government should take the initiative of moving its own offices and ministries to Jerusalem so Trump and the rest of the world could follow suit.

Interests and power

We live in a world that comprehends no language other than that of interests and power. Whoever lacks mastery of one or both of these languages will not be heard by anyone.

If Palestinians, Arabs and free people of the world wish to prevent the US embassy from being moved to Jerusalem, then they have to move promptly and be ready before it is too late. They should explain the seriousness of the fallout this step could have on America’s relations, interests and influence in the region.

These repercussions could include the eruption of an intifada that will be much bigger than its predecessors, the renunciation of the peace process that began with the signing of the Oslo Accords; the pursuit of a new multi-dimensional strategy whose cornerstone will be steadfastness and resistance in the land of Palestine; and the use of all cards and legitimate weapons commensurate with international law, chief among them the BDS campaign, to pursue Israel for its occupation, crimes and racism at all levels and in all local, Arab, regional and international forums.

It will not be easy to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem because such a measure will have huge repercussions. However, with Trump in power, it would no longer be impossible, especially when Israel is ruled by the worst and most extreme government in its history.

We stand on the threshold of a new era that may witness a shift in American policy, which is already bad, to the worst it has been on the Palestinian issue. We may be witnessing the last nail in the coffin of the two-state solution and the peace process. Trump’s pledge should not be underestimated.

- Hani Al-Masri is director general of Masarat, the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies. He founded and was director general of the Palestinian Media, Research and Studies Centre, Badael, between 2005 and 2011. He has published hundreds of articles, research and policy papers in Palestinian and Arab magazines and newspapers including Al-Ayyam and Al-Safir. He is a member of the board of trustees at the Yasser Arafat Foundation.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Image: The Old City of Jerusalem in December 2016 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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