In just a matter of days, President-elect Donald Trump will have to decide on whether or not to make good on his promise to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As we approach Inauguration Day, liberal and conservative commentators, alike, have offered a number of ideas as to how he can proceed. Ranging from “too cute by half” to just plain dumb, they should all be rejected. More to the point, all of the proposals I have seen focus exclusively on Israeli concerns, ignoring or giving short shrift to Palestinian and broader Arab or Muslim concerns and sensitivities.
On the one side, there are proposals from hardliners who advise Trump to just go ahead and make the move. They argue that in fulfilling his campaign promise he will appease his base and gain international respect for being a strong and decisive leader. They dismiss Palestinian, Arab and Muslim opinions, relying on false assumptions that there is diminished concern across the Arab world for the Palestinian issue or making the racist case that Arabs respect strength and will ultimately reconcile to a US move.
Then there are a number of “clever” proposals that assume that the “move” can be finessed in ways that will, in effect, fool both Israelis and Palestinians. One has the new US ambassador living and working in Jerusalem, while keeping the “official” US embassy in Tel Aviv. Another suggests that the US can couple moving the US embassy to Jerusalem with opening a US liaison office in Ramallah, while promising to study opening an embassy for a future Palestinian state in East Jerusalem.
No one should be fooled. None of these proposals will work. Those who think that Arabs and Muslims will simply bow down before a Trumpian display of decisive strength are playing with fire. It’s true that the region is divided and distracted by the unraveling consequences of the “Arab Spring”, but messing with Jerusalem would be the catalyst for a focused and unified Arab and Muslim response. There would be massive unrest across the region.
Should governments fail to act, it would provide revolutionary Iran and extremist Sunni groups the opening they want to discredit those governments and further destabilise the region.
Palestine may have dropped off the radar for a time, but it remains “the open wound in the heart, that never heals”. Violating Jerusalem and unrest in the occupied Palestinian lands would rip the scab off that wound reminding Arabs of their vulnerability and their inability to control their history in the face of betrayal by the West. Ignore this passion and there will be consequences.
The same goes for the “cute” proposals. They will fool no one. Israeli hardliners will not accept a clever finesse. And should the US then push back by protesting that the “move” is real — the Arab side will be as infuriated as if it were real. The lesson is “don’t play with fire if you’re not ready to get burned”. Jerusalem is not to be messed with.
The problem with discussions about Jerusalem in the US is that the issue is largely viewed only through the Israeli/Jewish lens. The Israeli claim to the city and their historical narrative is the accepted framework through which the issue is understood. After the recent UN Security Council vote, US press reports quoted Israeli outrage that the resolution was anti-Semitic because it acted as if East Jerusalem were occupied territory and not “Israel’s eternal capital”. This claim was presented repeatedly in the press and by Members of Congress without rebuttal.
For Palestinians and Arabs, the issue of Jerusalem is complex, deeply personal, and completely ignored in the US. To be sure, the city is sacred. It is the third holiest site in Islam and it is home of the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
But Jerusalem is also the home of hundreds of thousands of captive Palestinians who are economically strangled and denied fundamental human rights.
What Israel calls East Jerusalem is actually a substantial swatch of land extending miles into the West Bank in which 22 Palestinian villages have been engulfed. Their lands have been confiscated to make way for Jewish only colonies (now euphemistically termed “neighborhoods”). These ancient Arab villages are now surrounded by Jewish-only settlements and are literally being choked to death.
More than this, it is important to recall that Jerusalem was also the heart of the West Bank. It was the metropole, housing major institutions that provided education, healthcare, cultural events, and social services for the entire Palestinian community. When Israel closed off Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank (and then built the wall further isolating the people from their hub) the consequences were devastating. Palestinians outside the wall lost access to basic services and employment. Palestinians inside were also cut off, becoming increasingly impoverished. I have suggested that to understand the impact, imagine if the State of Maryland were to claim Washington and all the area in the Beltway as its own and then deny access to the city to millions of Virginians who had previously worked, shopped, or received services in Washington.
Because Palestinians have seen how Israel has dealt with Bethlehem and Hebron, they can see the same pattern playing out and producing the same future for Jerusalem — a heavy-handed occupier, steadily dispossessing them of their land and rights, establishing “facts on the ground”, and ultimately taking full control and irreversibly transforming the city.
As a result, Palestinians are on edge. Moving the embassy or even pretending to do so would push them over, igniting a spark that would set the region aflame. My advice to the new administration: forget your promises and ignore both the “cute” and dumb proposals you have received and don’t mess with Jerusalem.
The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.