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Change to Jerusalem’s status would pre-empt Trump’s peace plan

Dec 06,2017 - Last updated at Dec 06,2017

Although it remains to be seen whether President Donald Trump goes ahead with the decision to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem, the very notion of considering changing the status of the holy city, which includes the occupied Old City and Arab neighbourhoods, a psychological, not to mention a profoundly legal, barrier that had stood for more than 50 years has been significantly fractured.

Palestinian and Arab officials have made it clear that such a decision will not only wreck current peace efforts but will unleash a new wave of violence and benefit extremists. In addition, it will effectively end Washington’s self-proclaimed role as a mediator — it was never seen as an honest broker — between Israel and the Palestinians. The timing of this latest controversy, coming in the wake of US threats to close the PLO office in Washington, raises questions about the Trump administration’s ability to execute “the ultimate deal” which reportedly seeks to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and normalise relations between Israel and the rest of the Arab world

On Tuesday Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is leading the White House’s Middle East peace team, delivered remarks on the administration’s plan at the  Saban Forum in Washington. He said that Trump realises that in order to create more stability in the Middle East “we have to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” adding that the “crises between Israel and the Palestinians are caused by the fact there is no final status agreement, and that’s why we need to solve the big issues including borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem”.

But if Kushner is admitting that the future of Jerusalem is key to reaching a final settlement then why would Trump pre-determine its status even before his peace plan is unveiled? Why would he enrage the Palestinians, not to mention hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims, and reward an intransigent Israeli government even before negotiations take place? 

Even if Trump chooses his words carefully regarding Jerusalem and limits the US recognition to West Jerusalem it gives Israel additional momentum to continue building settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, while bolstering its policy of expanding the borders of Greater Jerusalem by annexing more West Bank lands. Currently the area of what Israel considers its eternal capital makes up 12 per cent of the entire West Bank territory.

If Trump goes ahead and topples one of the pillars of US policy on the final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, how would he expect any Arab, not to mention Palestinian, leader to embrace his peace plan with the fate of Jerusalem becoming off limits? And with Jerusalem no longer a final status issue, from Israeli and US perspectives, what does that say about other major issues such as refugees, borders and a contiguous Palestinian state?

Any change by the US in the legal status of Jerusalem ahead of negotiations will effectively end the two-state solution and no plan, no matter how comprehensive and detailed, will have a chance of success. And with such a blow, the US administration would be pushing the Palestinians to adopt extreme positions both on the ground and in international forums.

The fate of East Jerusalem has always been considered a red line for Palestinian leaders. The late Yasir Arafat backed from a deal in the last minute in 2000 primarily because of Jerusalem. And so did his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, when he was offered a peace deal in 2008 by then Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. Whether both men were right or wrong will be decided by history. But the US and Israel are already on the wrong side of history if they believe a Palestinian leader will ever give up on East Jerusalem.

The danger in any change to Jerusalem’s status goes beyond the future of the city and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It weakens US moderate allies in the region and hands extremists much needed ammunition to radicalise angry followers. How does that help promote stability in the Middle East?

The irony is that Trump and his aides are not doing Israel a favour either. 

Such an untimely and unwarranted move will bolster Israel’s own extremists who are now in control of the country’s most far-right and ultranationalist governments. What the White House seems to ignore is that Israel itself is divided between those who want to give nothing to the Palestinians, and would want to see their plight resolved at the expense of Jordan and Egypt, and those who still believe in a two-state solution that would give the Palestinians a fair deal and end decades of illegal occupation.



The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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