Analysis

Trump Shows Moderation on Jerusalem Embassy Flap - but This Isn’t Over

Even a hollow gesture toward moving American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem could light fire under Palestinians, Muslims in region.

Demonstrators take part in a protest outside the US embassy in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv against President Donald Trump, January 21, 2016.
JACK GUEZ/AFP

Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the first world leaders to receive a phone call from U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday, two days after the president was sworn in. Apparently a first work meeting is planned for the two in Washington next month. Netanyahu will go to that meeting concerned not only about police investigations and the state comptroller’s report, but also about threats from his coalition partners on the right.

The prime minister can’t allow himself to trail behind Bennett for long, since the latter is gnawing away at Netanyahu’s electoral base on the right with his demands to utilize Trump’s nomination for enforcing a rapid annexation of Area C, or at least of Ma’aleh Adumim.

This is what lay behind Netanyahu’s announcement this week that limits on construction in East Jerusalem would be lifted, and what mainly explains the approval given for construction of 2,500 housing units in the West Bank (most of them in Ariel and in settlement blocs close to the 1967 Green Line border). This won’t be enough to meet the settlers’ demands, but at least they won’t be able to accuse Netanyahu of being unpatriotic.

Trump began his term with a hyperactive burst of presidential executive orders, but so far the transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem was not one of them. White House spokesman Sean Spicer, who has already managed to draw the wrath of the Washington media with his groundless claims in the debate on the size of the crowds at the inauguration, was more cautious at his second briefing, where he was asked about the embassy transfer. Spicer gave a vague answer, implying that this plan was far from fruition. Two days ago Palestinian newspapers reported that a similar message was conveyed by presidential aides to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

American insistence on leaving the embassy in Tel Aviv for all these years, not even recognizing West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (and in fact not even recognizing it as being under the legitimate sovereignty of Israel) was always artificial and unnecessary. However, the question now is whether correcting a historical wrong won’t engender much worse problems. Did the prime minister also drop a hint to Trump that the time is not ripe for such a move? The White House’s announcement about the two leaders’ phone conversation made no reference to this issue.

It’s obvious that Netanyahu is fully aware of intelligence assessments suggesting that transferring the embassy could lead to a renewed escalation of violence in East Jerusalem and the territories. It’s likely that the new administration is looking for alternate interim solutions, such as transferring the ambassador’s residence to Jerusalem or laying a cornerstone for a new embassy compound in Jerusalem, the completion and population of which will be stretched out over many years. Not that it matters to Trump, but the embassy building in Tel Aviv was slated to undergo extensive renovations in the near future, at relatively great expense.

Israeli concerns revolve not only around the Palestinians. Brig. Gen. (res.) Shalom Harari, one of the most senior Arab affairs advisers in the defense establishment, told Haaretz that reports about the transfer of the embassy are threatening the fragile web of relations between Israel and its Sunni neighbors, whom Netanyahu describes as part of a nascent network committed to regional peace. “Such a decision will move moderate Sunni countries like Egypt and Jordan towards positions they are very uncomfortable with,” maintains Harari.

When it takes place in Jerusalem, a largely diplomatic move such as an embassy transfer assumes a confrontational religious significance in the Muslim world, and is immediately linked to the perceived Jewish threat on the Temple Mount. When such a move is made by an American president who declared during his election campaign that he would wage a crusade against extremist Islam, Arab sensitivity to the issue is heightened. Arab leaders don’t trust someone who invited five priests and a rabbi, but no Muslim religious figure, to his inauguration.

Of all these countries, Jordan is in the most sensitive situation. A few years ago Abbas entrusted King Abdullah with something akin to a power of attorney for protecting Islam’s holy sites in Jerusalem.

Behind the scenes Jordan has very close ties with Israel, based on a wide and complex web of common interests. However, an American-Israeli move in Jerusalem could inflame the Jordanian street, which in any case is mired in growing economic woes, bombarded by extremist Salafist propaganda while struggling to deal with the burden of absorbing millions of refugees from Iraq and Syria. This week, Abdullah invited Abbas to Amman, and the two published a joint communique according to which they would do their utmost to prevent the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem.

Setting the West Bank on fire

In general, things look very gloomy from the Palestinians’ perspective. The leadership in Ramallah is very concerned with the rise of Trump, some of whose close associates enthusiastically embrace the deep right in Israel. The transfer of the embassy frightens it no less than the heralded resumption of construction in the settlements. In the background, the slow erosion in Abbas’s standing continues. He will turn 82 soon.

The Palestinian arena is replete with internal tensions, broadcasting instability. In recent months the PA took pains to foil terror attacks against Israel, in the belief that such attacks also put its own rule at risk. In the matter of the embassy it seems Palestinian leaders are also concerned about being overtaken by more extreme elements. In a patriotism contest with Arab states and Hamas, the PA can’t be seen as lagging behind.

Tension over the embassy transfer is dictated from the top down. Senior PA and Tanzim (Fatah) officials are taking a consistently aggressive stance. An American announcement of a transfer, coming after Netanyahu’s announcement of the resumption of construction and Trump’s declarations of love for Israel, could provide the spark to rekindle a conflagration in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. On the ground, with or without any connection to Trump, there has been a slight increase in the number of attacks in recent weeks.