US embassy relocation to Jerusalem: Paths and consequences

China Plus Published: 2018-05-14 12:24:00
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By Dr Mohammed Issam Laaroussi

As declared by Donald Trump, the United States relocated the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem on May 14th, 2018. The White House chose this date to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the proclamation of the State of Israel. Trump's unilateral decision has outraged the Palestinians, who want to make East Jerusalem the capital of a new Palestinian state. Trump's decision has shown his indifference to their demands. The question of Jerusalem is one of the prickliest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trump's move to inaugurate the United States' embassy in the holy capital is considered an irrational decision on the international diplomatic level. Moving a diplomatic headquarters from one city to another may seem innocuous, but is a foreign policy decision which is threatening regional and international security. Adding to his credentials as an unorthodox leader, Trump has shunned a track taken by his predecessors in the White House. The United States Senate adopted a resolution in 1995, stating that Jerusalem is "the capital of the State of Israel and should not be divided." Despite this, successive US administrations, whether Democrat or Republican, had resisted Israel's lobbying to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

A road sign leading to the U.S. Embassy is seen ahead the official opening in Jerusalem, Sunday, May 13, 2018.[Photo: AP/Ariel Schalit]

A road sign leading to the U.S. Embassy is seen ahead the official opening in Jerusalem, Sunday, May 13, 2018.[Photo: AP/Ariel Schalit]

Many in the international community consider the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem an illegal act, as Jerusalem is technically an occupied territory. Israeli forces annexed western Jerusalem during the first Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948. East Jerusalem was taken by Israeli forces during the 6-Day War in 1967. However, the international community does not recognize any official Israeli control of the city, with international convention stating that the status of Jerusalem is something which has to be negotiated. Recognizing this, the international community had complied. All foreign embassies in Israel were previously based in Tel Aviv. The US decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as the Israel capital has drawn international condemnation. 128 countries have adopted a resolution condemning the US move.

Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, as expected, has stirred up strong feelings among Muslims and Arabs, many of whom see it as an unwelcome intrusion into matters they feel must be decided through negotiations. The unilateral move by the US has triggered anger across the Arab and Muslim world, fueling tensions and jeopardizing peace efforts. Based on resolutions of past Islamic Summits, the "issue of Al-Quds (the Arabic name for Jerusalem) is the core of the Palestinian cause, which, itself, is the essence of the Arab-Israeli conflict" and "that there can be no comprehensive and just peace without the return of the City of Al-Quds to Palestinian sovereignty, as the capital of the State of Palestine."

The US decision to transfer its embassy to Jerusalem also has serious repercussions on the internal environment of the city itself, particularly when it comes to Islamic religious sites which are administered by Jordanian authorities. Recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital could provide Israeli authorities with more political cover to administer religious sites throughout the city, whether they be Jewish, Muslim or Christian, as they see fit. While Israeli authorities voluntarily allow Jordanian officials to administer Muslim holy cites in Jerusalem, there are concerns Israel would have an easier time on the international stage in revoking this if Jerusalem gains more international recognition as Israel's capital. These fears - including rumors of Israeli plans to destroy Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem - have been a catalyst for violent protests and acts of violence in the region.

Palestinians have warned they will not sit idle in the wake of the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Hamas, the Gaza-based Palestinian group considered a terrorist organization by the US and many of its allies, has threatened a new intifada, or "tremor." Hamas-based uprisings against Israeli forces in the late 1980s and in the early 2000s resulted in thousands of deaths on both sides.

Trump's recognition of Jerusalem isolates the United States on one of the world's most sensitive diplomatic issues. It drew a storm of criticism from Arab and European leaders, including some of the United States' closest allies. The trump's move risks setting off violence and that will make achieving peace even more difficult. It also throws into doubt his ability to maintain the United States as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal is also generating tensions, as its bolstering Israeli nationalism, giving the 'hawks' in the Israeli government more leverage to make preemptive strikes on Iran and its allies.

The Trump administration has shown - in the case of North Korea - that it understands the value of negotiation and dialogue. However, the Trump administration's recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital shows that the US President willing to stifle any voices which run counter to his thinking. Critical of any previous political misadventure by his predecessors in the Oval Office, Trump may want to consider the outcome of his own actions when considering his own geo-political legacy.

(Dr Mohammed Issam Laaroussi is a scholar based in United Arab Emirates)

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