Will the Jerusalem crisis bring clarity or chaos for Palestine?
The dramatic US policy shift on contested Jerusalem is seen by the Western-backed Palestinian leadership as a dangerous betrayal and game-changer that is bound to propel them into a risky confrontation with the US and Israel on the global stage. Palestini
Why Jerusalem matters US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital contradicts longstanding international assurances to the Palestinians that the fate of the holy city will be determined in negotiations. With Mr Trump’s sharp pivot, the US is seen as siding with Israel, which claims all of Jerusalem, including the Israeli-annexed eastern sector the Palestinians seek as a future capital.
The dispute over Jerusalem forms the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but transcends a mere real estate argument. The city, home to Judaism’s holiest site, is also sacred to billions of Muslims and Christians worldwide, and perceived slights to their claims have triggered major protests or violence in the past. Abbas’ response so far Mr Abbas has been trying to rally international support, reaching out to leaders from Pope Francis to the EU foreign policy chief and Arab leaders. He warned Mr Trump in a phone call that the US shift will rock the region and threaten Washington’s plans for a Middle East peace deal.
In a speech after Mr Trump’s announcement, Mr Abbas said the US has effectively removed itself from any role as a Middle East broker, but he did not say what immediate steps, if any, the Palestinians plan to take.
Mr Abbas is to hold internal consultations with officials from the Palestine Liberation Organisation and his Fatah party, and plans to meet his closest Arab ally, King Abdullah II of Jordan. A moment of truth? The crisis over Jerusalem may push Mr Abbas, the most steadfast Palestinian champion of seeking statehood through negotiations, to a point he has avoided for so long – acknowledgement that the “peace process” is not working, at least in its current format.
Critics have argued that endless negotiations mainly serve Israel by providing diplomatic cover for its expansion of settlements on war-won lands. Mr Abbas also derived some political legitimacy from the process, positioning himself as the only leader with a shot at delivering statehood.
Mr Trump says he remains committed to brokering a Middle East deal, despite the Jerusalem pivot. However, those close to Mr Abbas say it is time to look for alternatives. Any talks with US officials are now “superfluous and irrelevant”, said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior PLO official. “The peace process is finished.” Mr Abbas has warned in the past that a failure to achieve a so-called two-state solution could prompt Palestinians to pursue a single state for two peoples, a prospect most Israelis reject. The Palestinian leader may be reluctant to break away from his longstanding policies or lack the political courage to do so, but not shifting moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, said senior Fatah official Nasser al-Kidwa.
The Palestinians could also try to press prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) to charge Israeli leaders with war crimes, including over settlement building, others said.
Mr Abbas has refrained from such a step until now, under apparent US pressure.
The ICC prosecutor is currently conducting a preliminary examination of the situation in the Palestinian territories, but this is a more open-ended review and could take years. The probe was triggered by “Palestine” becoming a member state of the court. The status change, in turn, was made possible by the 2012 UN General Assembly recognition of a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, the lands Israel captured in 1967. Help from Europe? The Palestinians are increasingly looking to Europe for help, encouraged by the harsh criticism of Mr Trump’s Jerusalem policy by European leaders.
European states in the past were relegated by Washington to the role of paymaster, sending hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to support the Palestinian self-rule government and help manage the long-running conflict.
European states often take a more critical view of Israeli policies than the US, especially on settlements, but have failed to challenge Washington’s monopoly as mediator.
Palestinians now hope the growing rift between European leaders and the US over Jerusalem will earn them diplomatic points. An immediate goal is to persuade influential Western European countries to recognise a state of Palestine. Risk or opportunity? For Palestinians, Mr Trump’s policy shift offers both risk and opportunity.
Jerusalem has repeatedly been a flashpoint for violence, and Palestinian protest marches planned later this week could lead to clashes with Israeli troops.
Such confrontations can spin out of control, as they did more than a decade ago when they escalated into an armed uprising. Mr Abbas staunchly opposes violence as counter-productive, but he may not be able to contain widespread public anger.
Some say Mr Trump’s policy shift may create a moment of clarity and help end years of paralysis – by making it impossible to perpetuate the idea that statehood is possible under the old paradigm.
“That option is now off the table and that’s a good thing,” said Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser of the Palestinian self-rule government. “This had really held us up for so many years.”
> A view of Jerusalem’s old city. President Donald Trump, inset, has recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, despite intense Arab, Muslim and European opposition