The United States has long been a contradictory player in Palestinian and Israeli affairs, attempting to broker “peace deals” on the one hand while providing Israel with billions of dollars in military aid and political backing on the other. Now Donald Trump has honed this double-edged US role to a devastating point with his calamitous decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—even as he calls for a two-state solution “if agreed” by both sides.
As always, Trump has his own interests at heart. In one fell swoop, he has managed to placate his major donor Sheldon Adelson, who contributed nearly $40 million to Trump’s election and inauguration, and please both Israel and pro-Israel Christian evangelists, while kicking the can down the road for the next president to deal with. (White House aides say it will take at least three years for a new embassy to be built.) Most important of all for Trump, given his desire to make his mark, he can boast that he has delivered something other presidents have sidestepped for 20 years.
In shredding decades of established policy, Trump doesn’t seem to care a bit that his move jeopardizes his country’s interests in the region—or that it poses a direct threat to the Palestinians. Nor do the basic precepts of international law seem to have crossed his mind. Not only is East Jerusalem considered occupied territory, but the international community does not recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Under the 1947 United Nations partition plan, which provided an international imprimatur for Israel’s creation, Jerusalem is a corpus separatum with an international status. The consensus was that this status should not be changed without agreement between the sides. As a result, no country in the world maintains an embassy in the city.
So where does this leave the Palestinians? Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has anchored his hopes to US mediation since he assumed power over a decade ago. But he immediately rejected Trump’s speech—Trump’s lip service to “peace” and promise to hold off on final-status issues were apparently cold comfort—and declared that the United States could no longer serve as mediator. But the reality is that Abbas has nurtured few diplomatic alternatives to the United States. When the global outrage quiets down, he may find himself increasingly isolated and weakened, sidelined by the machinations of the so-called Arab Quartet (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt) in tandem with Washington.
On the ground, Trump’s position will heavily reinforce Israel’s colonization drive. It will amplify calls from the right wing, including senior government officials in Israel such as Naftali Bennett, to annex Area C—an area accounting for some 60 percent of the West Bank where Israel retains full control over security and civil affairs—if not the entirety of the occupied territory.
First on the list is the E1 corridor, a strategically significant strip of land measuring approximately 12 square kilometers that is located between Jerusalem and the illegal Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. An ongoing push to annex the area has left 1,400 Palestinians facing eviction, including all 32 families from the village of Khan Al-Ahmar, which is under an order for immediate demolition.
E1 is “strategic” because it would secure Ma’ale Adumim’s contiguity with Israel by creating an urban Jewish block between Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem. This would bolster Israel’s grip on East Jerusalem by surrounding and dwarfing its Palestinian districts with Jewish neighborhoods. Significantly, it would all but cut the West Bank in half, making a contiguous Palestinian state impossible.
At the center of it all are the Palestinian Jerusalemites. Ever since Israel illegally annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 and expanded its boundaries, its Muslim and Christian inhabitants have been gradually but forcibly transferred. In a bid to “Judaize” the land, Israel has enforced a series of discriminatory laws and policies designed to reduce the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem, whether through the destruction of Palestinian homes or the revocation of the residency of Jerusalem’s Palestinians. From 1967 to the end of 2016, Israel has revoked the residency of at least 14,595 Palestinian Jerusalemites.
Jerusalem has always been the economic and cultural center of life for many Palestinians, particularly in the West Bank. However, Israel’s drive to separate Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, through the construction of its unlawful wall and a ring of Jewish settlements, means most Palestinians can no longer enter Jerusalem to do business, study, visit, or receive medical care.
If Trump’s declaration has clarified one thing, it is that the United States is an antagonist and the road to a just peace lies elsewhere. That clarity may push European countries, however reluctantly, into a position of leadership in tackling the conflict, which will necessitate holding Israel accountable for its violations of international law. And it will only reinforce the determination of the Palestinian people to forge alternative paths to secure their rights to freedom, justice, and equality.