Donald Trump’s pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – should it go ahead – will lead to an escalation in violence between Israelis and Palestinians such the new president cannot imagine and the conflict is unlikely to be contained to home turf
Newly inaugurated US President Donald Trump is about to reverse an historical course that has been in the making for 100 years, writes Ramzy Baroud. The inexperienced, demagogic politician hardly understands the danger that lies in his decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. If he goes through with this, he is likely to unleash an episode of chaos in an already volatile region.
The move, which is now reportedly in the “beginning stages”, is not a merely symbolic one, as some naively reported in Western mainstream media.
True, American foreign policy has been centred mostly on military power, rarely historical fact. But Trump, known for his thoughtlessness and impulsive nature, is threatening to eradicate even the little common sense that governed US foreign policy conduct in the Middle East.
If the new president moves forward with his plan, unsympathetic to Palestinian pleas and international warnings, he is likely to regret the unanticipated consequences of his action.
A century ago, British forces under the command of General Sir Edmund Allenby occupied the Palestinian Arab city of Jerusalem. That ominous event in December 1917 disturbed the cultural and political equilibrium that existed in Palestine for nearly a millennium.
Throughout his campaign for the White House, Trump made numerous, wholesale, often contradictory promises. While initially he pledged to keep a similar distance between Palestinians and Israel, he later reversed his position, adopting that of Israel’s right-wing government.
It also initiated a war that has proved the longest and one of the most bloody and destabilising in modern human history. Although Palestine was wrestled from the hand of its governing bodies operating under the auspices of the Ottoman Empire, its new British rulers understood the unequalled importance of Jerusalem to its people.
That understanding was always present, even when France and Britain signed the Sykes-Picot agreement in May 1916, dividing Ottoman territories among themselves, Jerusalem’s status was designated as an international area owing to its shared religious significance.
The same emphasis regarding the neutrality of Jerusalem was made time and again, including in the League of Nations’ decision in 1922 to give Britain a political mandate over Palestine, and the United Nations resolution to divide Palestine into two countries, one Arab and one Jewish, in November 1947.
While that envisaged Palestinian state never actualised (thanks to numerous obstacles placed by the US and Israel), Israel became a reality in May 1948. Mere months after an armistice agreement was reached, Israel declared Jerusalem as its capital in December 1949. It was then that biblical mythology was remoulded to fit political exigencies.
Israel’s first Parliament (Knesset) declared in January 1950 that “Jerusalem was, and had always been the capital of Israel”. The “was” and “always been” are references to a twisted interpretation of history that has no place in modern international law, of which Israel is never a follower to begin with.
After 1,500 years of Canaanite rule over Palestine, the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea fell under the rule of numerous invaders, including the Philistines, the Israelites, the Phoenicians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Crusaders, and then it was ruled by various Islamic Caliphates from 1291 until the British mandate in 1922.
The Israelites’ control barely lasted for 77 years and it is largely contested that Israeli Jews of today are even blood relatives of the groups that inhabited Palestine 2,000 years ago.
Yet, that was enough for the modern Israeli national myth, which is now championed by the most right-wing, religious extremists in both the United States and Israel.
In 1967, Israel occupied the rest of historic Palestine, including Palestinian East Jerusalem, annexing the city in 1980. The international community has continually rejected and condemned the Israeli occupation, with repeated emphasis on Jerusalem.
Countries around the world, even those that are considered allies of Israel, including the United States, reject Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, and refuse Israeli invitations to relocate their embassies from Tel Aviv to the illegally occupied city.
The United States’ attitude towards Jerusalem, however, has been marred with contradictions. Since 1995, the US position has been divided between the historically pro-Israel US Congress and the equally pro-Israel but slightly more pragmatic White House.
In October 1995, the US Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act. The act was passed by an overwhelming majority in both House and Senate. It called Jerusalem the undivided capital of Israel and urged the State Department to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The US administration at the time protested against the violation of protocol as such a decision is the responsibility of the executive branch, not politicians beholden to Israel’s influential lobby in Washington.
The other dilemma is that if the US walks away from international consensus on the matter, it both loses the little credibility it had as a “peace broker” and would be left to contend with the terrible consequences that are likely, including political instability and violence.
It is true that Jerusalem has tremendous spiritual significance for Muslims, Christians and Jews, but the uninterrupted cultural and religious significance it had for Palestinian Christians and Muslims alike makes it unpatrolled as an economic, political and cultural hub as well.
For many years, US administrations under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama have signed a presidential waiver that deferred the Congressional bill six months at a time. The last time the waiver was signed by former President Obama was on December 1, 2016.
Throughout his campaign for the White House, Trump made numerous, wholesale, often contradictory promises. While he initially pledged to keep a similar distance between Palestinians and Israel, he later reversed his position, adopting that of Israel’s right-wing government. Now the opportunistic real-estate mogul enters the White House with an eerie agenda that looks identical to that of the current Israeli government of right-wingers and ultra-nationalists.
“We have now reached the point where envoys from one country to the other could almost switch places,” wrote Palestinian Professor, Rashid Khalidi, in the New Yorker.
He wrote, “The Israeli Ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, who grew up in Florida, could just as easily be the US Ambassador to Israel, while Donald Trump’s Ambassador-designate to Israel, David Friedman, who has intimate ties to the Israeli settler movement, would make a fine Ambassador in Washington for the pro-settler government of Benjamin Netanyahu.”
The Israeli right is almost in a state of political euphoria. Not only are the superfluous references to a “peace process” and a Palestinian state over, but they also now have a free hand to build illegal Jewish settlements (colonies) in occupied Jerusalem unhindered.
New bills are springing in the Israeli Knesset to annex even the Jewish settlements rendered illegal by Israel’s own definitions, and to remove any restriction on new settlement construction and expansion.
The Trump administration has no qualms with that; to the contrary, this falls squarely in the agenda of the new rulers of the United States who now control the legislative and executive branches.
The odd thing is that the US is about to violate the very international consensus (as in US-led Western consensus) regarding the conflict in Palestine. Speaking to the Paris peace conference on January 15, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault warned Trump against the “very serious consequences” that await in case the US embassy is in fact moved to Jerusalem.
The French and other European countries are aware that such a move would end the US-led “peace process” along with the thus far futile quest for a two-state solution.
However, this should be the least of anyone’s concerns, since both the “peace process” and the “two-state solution” charade have been largely an American investment to maintain US leadership, power and influence over the conflict in Palestine.
The US, and its Western allies, certainly had the needed clout and power to achieve a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict, if that was indeed their overriding priority. They failed to do so over the course of 25 years, starting in the Madrid Talks of 1991 and ending with the pitiful Paris conference on January 15.
Past American failures notwithstanding, the Trump administration’s gamble in moving the US embassy is likely to ignite a political fire throughout Palestine and the Middle East with horrific and irreversible outcomes.
Palestinians and Arabs understand that moving the embassy is far from being a symbolic move, but a carte blanche to complete the Israeli takeover of the city, including its holy sites, and complete the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Muslims and Christians.
That escalation will certainly and explicably lead to violence. Vital US interests in the Middle East could and will also suffer the consequences of such an imprudent move. Palestinian officials and religious figures alike condemned the US decision. A top Palestinian official referred to it as a declaration of war on Muslims.
Considering the significance of Jerusalem to Palestinian Muslims and Christians, and hundreds of millions of believers around the world, Trump might indeed be igniting a powder keg that would further derail his already embattled presidency.
While some in the mainstream Western media are already predicting “a fresh wave of Palestinian violence” ends should the embassy be relocated, the new US administration must think carefully before embarking on such self-destructive moves.
Just because Trump intends to reverse the legacy of his predecessor doesn’t mean the new American president should begin his legacy by inviting more violence and pushing an already volatile region further into the abyss.
This article, written by political analyst and author Ramzy Baroud was originally published by Al Jazeera