Jerusalem row escalates, puts peace process in doubt
LONDON - The Middle East peace process appears unlikely to resume as a diplomatic row escalates between US, Israeli and Palestinian leaders over the Trump administration’s announcement to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly said US President Donald Trump is unfit to broker peace negotiations.
In a meeting of the West Bank-based Palestinian Central Council, a high-ranking arm of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Abbas said, “The deal of the century is the slap of the century and we will not accept it,” in a reference to Trump’s pledge to reach the “ultimate” peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
Abbas lashed out at Trump for accusing him of refusing to engage in peace negotiations. “Yekhreb beitak!” (“May your house be demolished!”) Abbas exclaimed, using a colloquial Palestinian Arabic curse that drew laughter from PLO officials.
Abbas, who is expected to shun US Vice-President Mike Pence when he visits the region, called US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley a “disgrace.” Both are known to be firm supporters of Israel.
The Palestinian Central Council called to suspend the PLO’s 1993 recognition of Israel but the final decision remains with Abbas, whom observers said is unlikely to implement it.
“If there is light in this darkness it is that Abbas also repeatedly stressed his continuing commitment to a two-state solution, based on international law and the 1967 borders,” wrote Ian Black, the Guardian’s former Middle East editor, in the British daily.
“That remains an enduring point of both principle and political realism — even in the topsy-turvy days of the Trump era. Yet how it is to be achieved looks harder than ever before.”
To many, Abbas seems to have run out of ideas on how to deal with Trump.
“Beyond the rhetoric, however, the truth is that the Palestinians still don’t have a strategy for how to respond to the American president, particularly after his announcement that the United States considers Jerusalem the capital of Israel,” wrote Grant Rumley, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in Foreign Policy magazine.
A total of 18 Palestinians and one Israeli have been killed since Trump’s December 6 announcement on Jerusalem. Most of the Palestinians were killed during clashes with Israeli forces.
Diana Buttu, a former aide to Abbas, was more vocal in her criticism of the Palestinian leader. “You can’t lead a revolutionary movement with people at retirement age,” she told Agence France-Presse.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Abbas had “lost his senses” and Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett said the speech represented Abbas’s swan song. In a Facebook post, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Abbas “tore off the mask.”
Netanyahu told Israeli reporters travelling with him in India that the US Embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem “far faster than what we think … in the course of the year.” American officials previously estimated the embassy move would take place near the end of Trump’s term in office but it appears that the United States will accelerate the move by modifying existing property to accommodate the new mission, allowing it to open next year.
Days after his speech in the West Bank, Abbas again criticised Trump at a conference in Egypt, saying Jerusalem is “the gate for peace and war and President Trump must choose between the two.”
“It is our eternal capital, to which we belong, just as it belongs to us,” Abbas said.
The speech in Cairo came after Washington announced a freeze on crucial funding for UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). The United States said it would withhold $65 million while allowing $60 million through to keep UNRWA running in the short term. The agency provides aid for about 5 million Palestinians across the Middle East.
PLO member Hanan Ashrawi said Washington was seeking to dismantle UNRWA at Israel’s behest. The US move was “targeting the most vulnerable segment of the Palestinian people,” she said in a statement.
Israeli politicians have previously called for Palestinian refugees in neighbouring countries to be incorporated into those societies.
US State Department officials insisted the decision was not made to pressure Palestinian leaders. “This is not aimed at punishing anyone,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. “The United States government and the Trump administration believe that there should be more so-called burden-sharing to go around.”
UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl said he would appeal to other donor countries for money.
“At stake is the dignity and human security of millions of Palestine refugees, in need of emergency food assistance and other support in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” he said in a statement.
“The reduced contribution also impacts regional security at a time when the Middle East faces multiple risks and threats, notably that of further radicalisation.”