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Embassy move fulfills Trump's promise, but consequences for peace process uncertain

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

President Donald Trump said in a video message Monday that the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv was “a long time coming” and he continues to aspire toward peace between Israel and Palestine, but many experts still believe this shift in policy will make peace much harder to achieve.

"We believe it is possible for both sides to gain more than they give -- so that all people can live in peace -- safe from danger, free from fear, and able to pursue their dreams," said Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, at a dedication ceremony for the new embassy site.

Critics say publicly recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. embassy there without a final peace agreement introduces an unnecessary obstacle into a process that already often seems intractable. Supporters hope removing this issue from negotiations will help kickstart a path forward from the current stalemate.

Administration officials, led by Kushner, are still developing a proposal for a peace plan. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted over the weekend that the U.S. remains committed to achieving a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine.

“The peace process is most decidedly not dead,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We’re hard at work on it.”

Control of Jerusalem has been contested since Israel’s founding. Jordanian forces occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem after British rule ended in 1948, but Israel captured the land in the Six Day War of 1967. The United Nations considers East Jerusalem occupied territory and the Palestinians have demanded control of it as the capital of any future state.

Due to the dispute over Jerusalem, a city that carries religious significance to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the U.S. and other countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel have historically housed their embassies in Tel Aviv. Congress passed a law requiring the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in 1995, but the last three presidents repeatedly signed waivers delaying the change. Trump changed that on December 6, accusing his predecessors of lacking the courage to keep their promises to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The embassy decision has been embraced in Israel, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has cited it as justification for cutting all ties with the Trump administration and resisting any peace talks the Trump administration attempts to facilitate.

“There’s a reason every president since Bill Clinton has issued the waiver every six months to postpone the move,” said Guy Ziv, author of “Why Hawks Become Doves: Shimon Peres and Foreign Policy Change in Israel” and a professor at American University. “It’s not a question of whether Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.”

With the Palestinians not even talking to the Trump administration, Ziv believes prospects for a viable two-state solution are now dim.

“I think the timing was poor and unbalanced,” he said. “This was an ill-conceived idea, given the consequences.”

The decision has many staunch defenders as well.

“America was the first nation to recognize the independence of the Jewish state, and it is particularly appropriate that our country is once again taking the initiative to strengthen our relationship with Israel and its standing in the world,” said the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in a statement. “We urge other nations to follow the Unites States' lead and also locate their embassies in Israel’s capital.”

Several Republican lawmakers attended the ceremony Monday and praised Trump’s leadership in affirming support for Israel and keeping a campaign promise.

“For over 20 years, it has been American policy to recognize Jerusalem as the capital, but it wasn’t until today – and the leadership of President Trump – that we had an embassy in Jerusalem,” one of those lawmakers, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a statement. “I truly appreciate the president turning this important recognition into reality.”

“In a long overdue move, we have moved our embassy to Jerusalem. Every nation should have the right to choose its capital,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement. “I sponsored legislation to do this two decades ago, and I applaud President Trump for doing it.”

The White House has boasted the embassy move occurred under budget and ahead of schedule, but this is only the first stage of a transition that is still expected to be long and costly. Embassy staff is moving into a former consular facility in Jerusalem at a cost of about $400,000, but a State Department cable obtained by Politico stated building a permanent embassy will take seven to ten years.

“It is in some ways a symbolic move,” said Maia Hallward, author of “Struggling for a Just Pace: Israeli and Palestinian Activism in the Second Intifada” and a professor of Middle East politics at Kennesaw State University. “It doesn’t change anything literally on the ground, but it does emphasize that the U.S. is not seen as a neutral broker in the conflict.”

Media reports contrasted the pageantry of Monday’s ceremony with footage of violent confrontations occurring simultaneously at the Israel-Gaza border between Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and thousands of Palestinians. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, at least 52 Palestinians were killed in the mass protests and 1,200 were wounded by gunfire.

Israeli officials say protesters targeted soldiers with rocks, Molotov cocktails, and other weapons, and three Palestinians were caught trying to plant a bomb. Defense forces had air-dropped leaflets warning Gaza residents not to approach the border fence.

IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said in a statement that 40,000 “rioters” engaged in “unprecedented violence,” accusing Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, of coercing citizens to participate.

The protests Monday followed nearly two months of weekly Hamas-led border marches aimed at breaking a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt over a decade ago. Dozens have been killed and thousands wounded in the demonstrations.

The Trump administration has placed blame for the protester deaths on Hamas, with White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah telling reporters they are the result of “rather cynical exploitation of the situation” by Hamas.

"As we have seen from the protests of the last month and even today, those provoking violence are part of the problem and not part of the solution," Kushner said at the dedication ceremony.

Administration officials maintain that two decades of American presidents delaying the embassy move did nothing to facilitate peace, and they are now formally recognizing the reality that Jerusalem is and will remain Israel’s capital.

“In the long run, we’re convinced that this decision creates an opportunity and a platform to proceed with a peace process on the basis of realities rather than fantasies, and we’re fairly optimistic that this decision will ultimately create greater stability rather than less,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman told reporters at a briefing Friday.

Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister of public security and strategic affairs, also endorsed that view in a Newsweek op-ed last week.

“A lasting peace must be based on reality,” he wrote. “American leadership in recognizing the self-evident reality that Jerusalem is Israel's capital is already encouraging other countries to move their embassies as well. Wide-spread international recognition of this plain fact will make it easier for Palestinian leaders in the post-Abbas era to abandon their attempts to erase the Jewish connection to the city.”

Some experts on the region have questioned the assertion that moving the embassy to Jerusalem makes peace easier to achieve, arguing it instead discredits the U.S. in the eyes of the Palestinians.

“It is difficult to believe how peace will be easier, when the most precious site in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, namely Jerusalem has been given away as Israel's capital by the mediating power, namely the U.S.,” said Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at Notre Dame University and co-editor of “Islam in the Modern World.”

Moosa sees no viable path to peace under U.S. leadership and no easy way for the Trump administration to reestablish impartiality.

“The word of the U.S. as a country and government is no longer reliable, because the current occupant of the White House thinks of global politics like real estate or a construction site that can be bought, sold, traded, bartered, built, and rebuilt at any price and does not believe in international commitments and agreements made by his predecessors,” he said.

According to Hallward, taking the issue off the table as a political matter does not necessarily resolve it as a religious one, and Jerusalem’s religious significance to three faiths could make that an even more complicated matter.

“A lot of people have said over the years that if you change a political conflict to a religious one, it becomes impossible to solve,” she said.

Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, suggested the U.S. abdicating a pretense of neutrality may open the door for others like the European Union to take the lead in the peace process.

“No Palestinian is going to take seriously the U.S. in the role of a peacemaker given this move, and nor should anyone else,” she said.

Daniel Shapiro, who served as ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama, disputes the premise that the move is “the death knell of prospects for peace.” In a series of tweets Monday, he defended the decision as reinforcing the legitimacy of Jewish ties to Jerusalem and opening the door to the eventual establishment of a U.S. embassy to Palestine in East Jerusalem, though he expressed doubt that current leaders in Israel and Palestine can resolve the crisis.

Monday’s ceremony was timed to mark the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding in 1948, giving added resonance to the event for the Israelis. As a result, though, it also coincided with the eve of the 70th anniversary of the “nakba,” the term Palestinians use to describe the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of their people because of Israel’s creation, making it even more provocative to them.

“I will say it’s a storm of Netanyahu and Trump’s own making that they have the embassy move today, because it’s really spitting in the face of Palestinian aspirations for basic rights,” Vilkomerson said.

When Trump announced his intent to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the embassy there last December, some experts warned it could ignite violence in the region. There were protests and outraged statements from Arab leaders at the time, but Israel’s relationship with many of its neighbors has improved, with leaders in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain recently affirming Israel’s right to defend its own land.

Hallward stressed the distinction between the reaction in broader Muslim world, which has seemed relatively muted, and in Gaza, where tensions have been enflamed. There are several reasons why the decision to move the embassy has not been met with the widespread unrest some predicted in Muslim nations surrounding Israel.

“We have not seen anything more broadly in the Arab world in part because of their strategic interests,” Hallward said. Saudi Arabia is aligned with Israel with regard to Iran, Syria is embroiled in its own internal conflicts, and Egypt is working with the Israelis on the Gaza blockade.

“It’s also hard to tell to what extent is the situation muted and to what extent is there just international attention not being paid to things because the attention is elsewhere,” she added.

Moosa sees most countries in the region, aside from Iran, as too fragile and depleted to offer serious opposition to the decision.

“The leading Gulf countries, with some exceptions, might officially issue demurrals at the embassy relocation, but most people believe that the leaders of those countries are privately winking at Israel,” he said.

Ziv fears the deadly clashes at the Gaza border Monday could signal further violence to come.

“I think the days ahead will be telling, but I’m fearful that this could spiral out of control because there’s no adult in the room,” he said. “Hamas has already called for a new intifada. If you consider that tomorrow is the Palestinian nakba and you couple that with Ramadan, I think we’re going to see a lot more violence that could spread beyond Gaza.”

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