Middle East: Israel
Americas: United States
After Trump recognizes Jerusalem as capital of Israel, US opens embassy; violence breaks out in Gaza
May 2018 was marked by the historic opening of the United States embassy in Jerusalem. The occasion occurred less than six months after the recognition of the city as the capital of Israel.
Going back to December 2017, there were suggestions that United States President Donald Trump would break with his predecessors and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The move would likely be a flashpoint since the status of Jerusalem has long been regarded as one of the toughest "final status" issues to be resolved in Middle East peace negotiations across multiple administrations.
While Israel claims Jerusalem unequivocally as its capital, Palestinians have claimed East Jerusalem as their capital in a future state. As such, United States presidents in modern times have generally sidestepped the sensitive issue, and indeed, the United States embassy has been located in Tel Aviv and not Jerusalem.
By completely sidelining the status of Jerusalem and, effectively, rewarding it in uncontested fashion via recognition, Trump was likely to set off a diplomatic firestorm in the Middle East.
Perhaps with this in mind, Jordan's foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, warned of "dangerous consequences" if the United States went down this road and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Via the social media outlet, Twitter, Safadi said: "Spoke with #US Secretary of State Tillerson on dangerous consequences of recognizing Jerusalem as capital of Israel. Such a decision would trigger anger across #Arab #Muslim worlds, fuel tension & jeopardize peace efforts."
For Trump, however, the move would function as the fulfillment of a campaign promise. As such, he conceivably could be more concerned about his domestic political support base and less about the geopolitical consequences.
Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, tried to calm the brewing dissonance over the matter by saying that no decision had yet been made. Kushner said, "The president is going to make his decision and he's still looking at a lot of different facts. When he makes his decision he'll be the one to want to tell you, not me."
It should be noted that the Palestinian leader, President Mahmoud Abbas, was attempting to foreclose an announcement by Trump. To this end, he was lobbying the international community to amplify the risks involved in the United States' open recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Among the most obvious would be a threat to the two-state solution, which remained the only viable pathway to Middle East peace in the long term.
On Dec. 6, 2017, President Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. "I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel," Trump said from the White House. He added, "While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering."
The move reversed decades of United State policy on what had long been regarded as the most contentious "final status" issue in the effort to forge lasting Middle East peace.
The move also effectively ended any suggestion of the United States being an impartial arbiter of the Middle East conflict. As noted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Trump’s decision made clear that the United States was abdicating from its role as balanced peace mediator. United States Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, struck a similar note, saying, “He cannot expect to side entirely with Israel on the most sensitive and complex issues in the process, and yet expect the Palestinians to see the United States as an honest broker."
Moreover, the move was so controversial that United States allies, such as the United Kingdom and France. United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May said: “We disagree with the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital before a final status agreement. We believe it is unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region. The British Embassy to Israel is based in Tel Aviv and we have no plans to move it." French President Emmanuel Macron cast Trump’s announcement as “regrettable.”
At the United Nations, the Secretary General warned that there was no alternative to lasting peace in the Middle East other than a two-state solution involving both Israel and the Palestinians. He warned, “There is no Plan B.”
Trump dismissed criticisms of his decision, saying, "There will of course be disagreement and dissent regarding this announcement but we are confident that ultimately, as we work through these disagreements, we will arrive at a place of greater understanding and cooperation."
But despite this blithe assertion by the United States president, there were intense fears that the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital would serve only to light a flame on Israeli-Palestinian tensions. There were fears that this recognition by the United States could even flare a third Intifada. To that end, Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the militant Palestinian group. Hamas, declared that very result. He said that Trump's decision was a “declaration of war,” and added, “Jerusalem is being kidnapped and ripped from us.”
Indeed, violence was already breaking out in Palestinian territories of West Bank and Gaza. Protests were also erupting in Jordan's capital of Amman, which was home to Palestinian refugees. United States embassies in various countries, such as Turkey, were also being subject to protests.
For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was triumphant, as he lauded Trump’s announcement as a “historic landmark." The Israeli prime minister said Palestinians must "get to grips with" the reality that Jerusalem is Israel's capital. Netanyahu declared that Jerusalem had been the capital of Israel for 3,000 years and had "never been the capital of any other people." The factual veracity of the statement aside, it was likely to be viewed as incendiary by many critics.
It should be noted that there would not be any immediate move of the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As with his predecessors, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Trump also ordered a delay. However, it was unclear that decision would calm tensions.
Of concern was the fact that 128 countries voted in favor of a non-binding United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for the United States to withdraw its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Seven countries -- Guatemala, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Nauru, and Togo along with the United States and Israel voted against the resolution; 35 countries abstained from voting; 21 did not cast a vote. It was a clear and embarrassing rebuke from the international community to Trump's decision.
Trump retaliated by threatening to cut off financial aid to all countries that voted in favor of that resolution. Meanwhile, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, warned the international community that consequences would be in the offing as she declared, "The United States will remember this day in which it was singled out for attack in the General Assembly for the very act of exercising our right as a sovereign nation." She continued, "We will remember it when we are called upon to once again make the world's largest contribution to the United Nations, and so many countries come calling on us, as they so often do, to pay even more and to use our influence for their benefit."
In mid-January 2018, during a meeting of Palestinian leaders, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned United States President Donald Trump's Middle East peace efforts. Abbas made clear that he would not be a party to any peace proposal from the United States, given Trump's decision to expressly recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The Palestinian leader characterized the move as the "slap of the century."
Abbas noted that Trump's moves made clear that the United States was no longer a trustworthy and fair peace broker. Speaking from Ramallah in the West Bank, he said, "The deal of the century is the slap of the century and we will not accept it." The Palestinian leader also made clear that the development made clear that the Oslo Accord -- the foundation for Middle East peace -- was now defunct. Abbas declared, "I am saying that Oslo, there is no Oslo," he added. "Israel ended Oslo."
In the background of these developments was an impending move by the Trump administration to withhold tens of millions of funds from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency -- the entity responsible for providing health care, education, and social services to Palestinian refugees. Because the United State has provided up to 30 percent of the funding for the agency, this decision to significantly reduce contributions was expected to have a deleterious effect.
The Trump administration has indicated that further funding from the United States for the agency would be dependent on the Palestinians returning to peace talks with Israel. This idea has been championed by United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Hayley, as a means to pressure the Palestinians back into negotiations that have been frozen for years. But this type of pressure could also be regarded as a sign that the United States was not really functioning as an honest and impartial arbiter of peace.
Moreover, there were fears that the withholding of finds could spur further instability in the Middle East region, particularly in an allied country like Jordan that has born the brunt of hosting Palestinian refugees for decades. Warnings were additionally coming from Israel, which noted reducing the United States contribution would curtail the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and could hit Gaza particularly hard. Such a scenario could thus spark further extremism from that Palestinian territory.
President Trump appeared to be undeterred by that characterization or such warnings. Via Twitter, he said: “We pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?"
In the third week of January 2018, during a visit to the Middle East, Jordan’s King Abdullah admonished the vice president of the United States, Mike Pence, for Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. King Abdullah told Vice President Pence that Trump had damaged the chances of a resumption of Arab-Israeli peace talks, and said that the United States would have to rebuild “trust and confidence.” The Jordanian monarch made the comment in the larger context of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he saw as a “potential major source of instability.” He warned against the Jerusalem decision, given that there was no comprehensive settlement for the Middle East or provision for a future Palestinian state.
King Abdullah also warned that Trump’s decision could spur violence in the Palestinian territories, which could very well affect Jordan — a key ally of the United States in the Middle East and Arab world. For his part, Pence said he “agreed to disagree” with King Abdullah on the effects of Trump’s Jerusalem decision.
In May 2018, the United States officialy relocated its diplomatic offices in Israel from Tel Aviv and opened its new embassy in Jerusalem.
The opening of the new United States embassy in Jerusalem took place on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, with President Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, and his son in law, Jared Kushner, present.
President Trump sent a video message in which he declared: "Today, Jerusalem is the seat of Israel's government. It is the home of the Israeli legislature and the Israeli supreme court and Israel's Prime Minister and President. Israel is a sovereign nation with the right, like every other sovereign nation, to determine its own capital, yet for many years we failed to acknowledge the obvious, the plain reality that Israel's capital is Jerusalem."
The United States and Israel respectively regarded the recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and the move of the embassy to that city constituted the strength of the connection between the two countries. But as discussed here, the move radically shifted long-standing American foreign policy on the matter. Indeed, it removed any suggestion that the United States was a neutral arbiter in the ongoing dissonance between Israelis and Palestinians. Furthermore, it muted any suggestion that a peaceful two state solution was close at hand. But for the United States and Israel, the occasion was a source of great celebration, with President Trump saying in his video message, a long time coming."
Amidst the celebration came turmoil as violent clashes broke out along the Israeli-Gaza border. The deadly protests resulted in the deaths of 58 Palestinians and injuries to as many as 2,700 others. It was the worst day for violence and bloodshed in Gaza since the 2014 war.
While much of the international community condemned Israel's handling of the protests in Gaza and the ensuing deaths, the Trump administration in the United States refrained from doing so. Instead, it placed the blame for the violence "squarely on Hamas" in the Palestinian territory. White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said, "Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response and as the secretary of state said, Israel has a right to defend itself." The United States also blocked a request for an independent United Nations inquiry into the situation in Gaza.
Amidst this unfolding turmoil, Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian representative to the United Nations, emphasized that there was "no chance" that Palestinians would engage in and kind of peace process led by the United States.
At the broader level, there were also diplomatic repercussions to the developments of the day. South Africa withdrew its envoy from Tel Aviv, while Turkey recalled its ambassadors to Israel and the United States for consultations.
-- May 17, 2018
Denise Youngblood Coleman, PhD.
President and Editor in Chief