US embassy move and Gaza violence dim peace prospect

The embassy move and the Gaza shootings could also have unwanted consequences for the US in the Palestinian territories.
Sunday 20/05/2018
A worker hangs a road sign directing to the US Embassy in the area of the US Consulate in Jerusalem,   on May 7.(Reuters)
Not the directions for peace. A worker hangs a road sign directing to the US Embassy in the area of the US Consulate in Jerusalem, on May 7.(Reuters)

WASHINGTON - The opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem and the resulting violence in Gaza may have destroyed all hopes of the US government facilitating a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, analysts say.

“This is the day that Donald Trump ensured that he will have no prospect to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal,” said Hady Amr, who served as US Middle East negotiator under former US President Barack Obama and now works as foreign policy project director at the Brookings Institution. Trump’s policies have eroded Palestinians’ hope in the two-state solution, the basic principle of efforts for Israeli-Palestinian peace for decades, Amr said in an interview. “We are in the process of entering a new political reality.”

Trump shocked the Palestinians by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and by ordering to move the US embassy to the city, prompting Palestinian authorities to reject any further negotiations with Washington. Trump’s move went against a long-held consensus in US policy that the Jerusalem question should be worked out at the end of possible peace talks.

Just like in the row over the nuclear deal with Iran that was ripped up by Trump earlier this month, the US administration is banking on the assumption that drastic steps in the Jerusalem issue will create pressures resulting in new agreements that are more in line with US interests. By breaking up the Iran deal and moving the embassy to Jerusalem, Trump also fulfilled campaign promises that are dear to his right-wing base.

The administration says it is confident that peace talks can go ahead despite events in Gaza. “We would like to see both sides be able to come back, sit at the table, and have conversations about a good and peaceful solution,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. “Unfortunately, we’re not there at this point, but we hope that we will be soon.”

But critics say Trump’s decisions irritate key US allies and isolate the United States internationally. In the wake of the Gaza violence, several US allies, including Germany, the UK, Ireland and Belgium, have called for an independent enquiry. US partner Turkey has withdrawn its ambassadors from Washington and Tel Aviv and has kicked out the Israeli envoy to Ankara.

The embassy move and the Gaza shootings could also have unwanted consequences for the US in the Palestinian territories as they could make Palestinian participation in new talks impossible. “I don’t see them returning to the negotiating table while Trump is president of the United States,” said Andrew Miller, a former senior State Department official who now works as deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), a Washington think-tank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas withdrew his top representative to the US. Husam Zomlot, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s office in Washington, would return to the Palestinian territories, the Palestinian foreign ministry said.

The US administration put the blame for the violence on Hamas. The radical Palestinian group that rules Gaza had been “intentionally and cynically provoking this response” by Israeli security forces, White House spokesman Raj Shah said.

Washington argues that by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the United States is removing a very controversial issue from the negotiating table before it can poison peace talks. That is why the White House does not think a much-taunted US peace plan for the Middle East, worked out by Kushner but as yet unpublished has been discredited by events in Gaza. “I don’t think it hurts the peace plan,” Shah said of the violence.

But analysts say Trump’s reputation has already suffered. “The fact that thus far Trump has not even outlined the steps he intends to take in a ‘new’ peace plan has damaged his credibility in Arab circles,” Richard Murphy, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia who is now with the Middle East Institute in Washington, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “Refusing to take sides in the One State/Two State debate is interpreted by Arab observers as a further American move supportive of Israel.”

Unconfirmed reports say the Kushner plan foresees a Palestinian entity with reduced sovereignty existing effectively under Israeli control. The plan also reportedly calls on Israel to transfer some parts of eastern Jerusalem to the Palestinians, Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, wrote on Twitter.

The United States may also find it difficult to get Arab partners to help put pressure on the Palestinians in the aftermath of the deadly events in Gaza. Faced with violence that once again illustrated the plight of the Palestinians in the eyes of many people in the region, officials in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates will be reluctant to follow the Trump administration’s request to lean on the Palestinians. “The longer the violence goes on, the more difficult it gets for leaders to do that,” Miller said.

At the same time, Iran could see its position in the region strengthened. “They will present themselves as the true defenders” of Palestinian interests, Miller said about Iranian leaders. Tehran might also boost support for radical groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he added.