U.S. embassy inauguration exposes core of Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Massive protests expected in the West Bank and Gaza Strip amid stalled American efforts to jump-start peace process.

Israel delighted, Palestinians angered ahead of US embassy move to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018 (Reuters)
Pomp, ceremony and enthusiasm will rule the day in Jerusalem, as the much-anticipated United States Embassy is set to be inaugurated in what President Donald Trump in December recognized as Israel's capital. But only a few kilometers from the new mission, "Day of Rage" protests have been called for in the West Bank, in addition to "March of Return" mass demonstrations in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, which could draw more than one hundred thousand people.
The juxtaposition goes to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; that is, two peoples competing over rather than sharing the same territory. The two sides are replete with alternative, if not mutually exclusive, narratives which at their core claim ownership over the Land of Israel based on historical and indigenous rights.
While President Trump will not be attending the embassy opening, the White House dispatched a large delegation led by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, senior adviser Jared Kushner and Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt. A Congressional body headed by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also is in Israel, as well as some of the most influential Christian conservatives in America.
"This is a glorious day that many of us wondered if we would live to see," Pastor John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel, told The Media Line. "Now this biblical fulfillment has been realized because of President Trump. Today, Israel is being treated with the same fairness as other nations," he continued, "as we have not shown favor but, rather, given Jerusalem and the Jewish people what is richly deserved."
The sentiment was echoed by former US presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who stressed to The Media Line that "President Trump has offered a great gift [to Israel] through this designation, which recognizes the legitimacy that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and Jewish state.
"This was a geopolitical move by President Trump to bring peace to this region," she added, "not only to Israel but also to Arab countries, which are bound to benefit from the decision. The US has now made clear that Jerusalem belongs to Israel and therefore the standing of the city can no longer be used as a propaganda issue or as [an excuse] for warfare."
Notably, however, no American officials were scheduled to visit Ramallah, despite the White House reportedly readying to present its year-in-the-making plan geared towards jump-stating peace negotiations. Both Kushner and Greenblatt, along with Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, have effectively been declared personae non grata by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who cut-off ties with the Trump administration in the wake of its Jerusalem declaration; this, notwithstanding the repeated assertion that the policy does not pre-determine the future borders of the holy city, thereby leaving the door open for part of it to become the capital of a prospective Palestinian state.
This notion was reinforced ahead of Monday's proceedings by the US State Department, which issued a release reiterating that, "moving our embassy is not a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace deal; rather, it is a necessary condition for it. We are not taking a position on… the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, nor on the resolution of contested borders."
Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, agrees that the embassy relocation is a matter of "correcting a historical wrong" and cementing the US-Israel alliance, which should not impinge on President Trump's efforts to forge a peace deal. In this respect, he contended to The Media Line, "The Palestinians are instead using [the development] as another pretext not to step up to the negotiating table.
"And as regards the violence, they do not need any specific reason to attack Israel. There was the [stabbing Intifada two years ago], there have long been car-rammings and in the past they perpetrated suicide bombings, so this is not a make-or break issue. Israel must therefore go its course and everyone else will fall in line," Ayalon concluded. "Had we listened to the threats of the Palestinians and the rest of the Muslim world we would not be here today."
In the same vein, Zalman Shoval, who served as Israeli ambassador to Washington on two separate occasions, described President Trump’s initiative as "natural, logical and moral," a long overdue development that took years of diplomatic maneuvering to achieve. He likewise explained to The Media Line that "one day, our Palestinian neighbors will recognize that this in no way should disturb bringing negotiations forward."
Others argue, however, that the move will inevitably negatively impact the peace process by solidifying the position of much of Israel's political class and public, which consider Jerusalem the Jewish state's "eternal and undivided" capital. To this end, since former prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2008 offered Abbas a comprehensive peace plan that included sovereignty over the eastern part of Jerusalem, Israelis, and, as a corollary, the government, have shifted to the right, thereby precluding, in the opinion of some, this potentiality.
Thus, the fate of Jerusalem has been dubbed a "final-status"—code-word for seemingly "intractable"—issue along with the exact territorial constitution of a future Palestinian state; the supposed right of some five million descendants of Palestinian refugees displaced during the 1948 war to return to Israel; and security arrangements mainly relating to Israel's demand that “Palestine” be demilitarized and that the IDF retain in perpetuity control over various West Bank areas, in particular the strategic Jordan Valley.
For a quarter of a century, the mediation of three different US presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama—has failed to bring the sides closer together on any of these matters, leading many analysts to believe that President Trump's efforts are doomed to failure.
Nevertheless, the regional dynamics have, over the past few years, changed dramatically, with the Jewish state and Sunni Arab nations undergoing a rapprochement based on the shared desire to curb Shi'ite Iran's potential nuclearization and destructive regional adventurism. As such, while a breakthrough is improbable, there may be a window of opportunity that previously did not exist.
To capitalize on this would first require Abbas to walk back from his refusal to engage in an American-led peace initiative, which is possible only if President Trump offers up some carrots to compensate for what the Palestinian leader views as the White House's wielding of a big stick; or if regional Muslim countries give Abbas an ultimatum: Namely, accept Washington's terms or be unseated, a warning Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly may be prepared to convey, if he has not already.
If so, Israeli Prime Minister Binjamin Netanyahu will have no choice but to play ball, with a view to, at the very least, maintain President Trump's staunch support, especially as things appear to be coming to a head with Iran. "King Bibi," as he is known locally, will then be put to the ultimate test, requiring the utilization of the full array of his undeniably impressive diplomatic skills simply to convince members of his own coalition—the majority of whom oppose Palestinian statehood outright—to go along with a negotiating process in which Israel will be expected to make significant concessions.
Otherwise, the Israeli premier may be forced to seek political alternatives, possibly through the formation of a "national unity" government that includes both centrist and left-leaning parties, albeit this is a much more unlikely scenario.
Overall, then, much work is needed merely to create a tenable foundation for the resumption of peace negotiations, an all-too-common dynamic that has come to be referred as "talks about talks." Irrespective, President Trump has shown a propensity for getting his way, from ditching the Iran nuclear and Paris climate accords to orchestrating a summit with belligerent North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Perhaps, then, the most unpredictable American leader ever is the necessary remedy to breathe fresh air into a peace process that has been on life-support for years.