Washington scheduled the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, in the presence of the US president’s advisors, his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, as well as the US Secretary of the Treasury along with 12 Congressmen and representatives from 32 countries from Africa, Europe, Asia and Latin America. The decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was announced by US President Donald Trump twice. The first announcement that sent shockwaves across the Arab world and Islamic countries was made in the end of last year, while the second came at the beginning of this year when he specified the exact date scheduled for moving the embassy.
Strong Arab stand
This is definitely painful news and a highly provocative step. The Arab League and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation have issued clear positions on the status of East Jerusalem, in that it belongs to the Arabs. As a confirmation of the continuity of the Arab position, the last Arab Summit in Dhahran was named ‘The Jerusalem Summit.’
Palestinians will hold demonstrations to reject this move and so will some Israelis who condemned this step because they believe it will widen differences between the two sides and undermine the prospects for achieving peace. Israeli security forces are certainly prepared and ready for all possibilities.
Trump is not the first US president who expressed his intention to move the embassy, but the big difference is that Trump is a man of action. The overall scene seems depressing, but we should always look at the bright side, probably it would lead to more hope in the future.
The Trump administration is aware that this step will cause difficulty for the peace process. However, it is committed to strengthening and protecting the Israeli position in the Arab region. There were some difficulties related to moving the embassy, and although they may seem like minor details, they are realistic and have effects. The most important one has been the location chosen for the embassy in Jerusalem.
The site of the US embassy
Jerusalem is a complex city, full of buildings and only a few empty patches of land — most of which are historically owned by either Muslim or Christian religious institutions or individuals. Thus for the US embassy to be in the middle of this overcrowded area, was fraught with security and even political risk.
Muslim and Christian Arabs believe that the Eastern half of the city is their preserve, which includes Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. At all Arab forums and meetings they did not talk about Jerusalem in general, but mainly about the eastern part of the city, and this is an undeniable right.
Ever since Trump announced moving the embassy to Jerusalem, it never occurred to my mind and probably to anyone that he would challenge Muslims and Christians in East Jerusalem as he is aware of the sanctity of this place and how harming this sanctity will have political consequences and affect civil peace in the region. It is for this reason that the site of the US embassy was chosen in a distant place in West Jerusalem, in a demilitarized zone lying between Israel and Jordan since 1949. This zone became part of the occupied territories after the Arab defeat in 1967.
In principle, the US has the sovereign right to choose the location for its diplomatic headquarters. However since it is the most powerful state in the world and its leaders have inherited the role of peace mediation for decades, the move came as a shock for it was biased towards one side against the other.
Iran nuke deal and embassy move
There are two points the Arabs should realize. The first one is that Trump would never change his mind, as he has calculations with a very close friend, i.e. Israel. Just like Trump took a courageous step, in spite of opposition from his Europeans allies, in order to protect Arabs from the hostile Iranian influence, he is today offering Israel, his ally, what protects it. Washington does not have to meet Arab expectations, specifically those of the Palestinians, who were not even able to unite, even in the wake of the Jerusalem issue. As we have our own considerations, Washington also has its own.
This does not mean that its position on withdrawing from the nuclear agreement was in exchange for its shift of embassy to Jerusalem. However, in the end the US is committed to protecting its different ethnic, ideological and political allies.
What can the Arabs do after ten days, when Washington took crucial decisions, withdrawing from the nuclear agreement and moving its Embassy to West Jerusalem?
Opportunity for Arabs
In the first case, we welcome America’s decision against the Iranian nuclear deal and support it, especially when we can see how Iran was scared after Israel attacked it in Syria a few days ago – so scared to the extent that it disowned its attack against Israeli locations in Golan. Iran’s project to develop ballistic missiles, which Iran insists on completing despite the Security Council resolutions that oppose it, was the huge mistake that provoked Washington’s ire. Thus, the sanctions will be re-imposed and Iran’s two years of prosperity, during which Iran felt free to inflame conflicts, would come to an end.
As for the Arab stance over Washington’s move of the embassy, then it will be rational if it becomes a point for negotiations and not the other way around. The state of anger that generates intransigence and arrogance has not been beneficial before and won’t be in the future. If the Palestinian administration had the courage and intelligence to look beyond the shifting of the embassy and manage to impose serious negotiations, it will have taken the step which Israel does not hope for and will thus embarrass it in front of the international community. Arabs can announce East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, even if implementing this is not possible. Trying to discuss this issue in a unilateral negotiation with Trump may renew confidence between the parties.
Although US president Donald Trump dared execute the decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem, this does not negate the fact that he is a decisive and daring man, and this provides an opportunity for the Palestinians and Arabs, which may not be available again.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Amal Abdulaziz Al–Hazani is a professor at King Saudi University and a writer for al-Sharq al-Awsat. She tweets @Alhazzani_Amal.