U.S. President Donald Trumps dramatic performance, in which he announced he would move the American embassy to Jerusalem, set off a wave of denunciations, warnings and threats from one end of the Middle East to the other this week.
Turkeys president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to cut off Turkeys ties with Israel. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israels capital will open the gates of hell on the West, warned Sheikh al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb. The United States can no longer be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Saeb Erekat, stating that from now on the struggle will focus on establishing a one-nation state.
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The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has called an emergency meeting next week of all the Islamic states to examine ways to act against the decision, even though it changed nothing regarding the peace process, which has been comatose since long before Trumps statement. Words appear to be the only ammunition the Arab and Muslim leaders have at the moment to display the little solidarity they still have with one another.
From the Arab states perspective, Trumps announcement hasnt changed anything in Jerusalems status. Egypt regrets Trumps decision, President Sissi said.
Although the decision doesnt change anything and doesnt infringe on the basic, protected rights of the Palestinian people in Jerusalem and the occupied territories it represents a major retreat in the efforts to advance peace, the Saudi Royal Palace stated. The decision wont change anything in the terms of the Arab peace initiative, which is an integral basis to any negotiation. If a religious war breaks out it wont be because of Trumps announcement but because of another showy visit of Israeli politicians on the Temple Mount.
The extreme scenario that Egypt and Jordan cut off diplomatic relations with Israel is not realistic. Israel and Egypts relations are based on military and intelligence interests that are not related to the Palestinian issue or Jerusalems status. Sisis response that recognizing Jerusalem as Israels capital will complicate the peace process is at most lip service to the Arab zeitgeist. Sisi cares more about the Palestinian reconciliation than the peace process. The reconciliation among the Palestinians can ensure quiet on the Gaza-Sinai border and rid Egypt of the disgrace of the siege on Gaza. Sisi isnt so naive as to think that Jerusalems status alone could revive or kill the peace process.
A few noisy demonstrations might take place in Jordan and voices have already been heard in the parliament to cut off relations with Israel. But King Abdullah has good reasons to continue military cooperation with Israel, which sees eye-to-eye with him on the Iranian threat on the monarchys Syrian border. Both Egypt and Jordan understand that punishing Trump by severing ties with Israel could act as a boomerang.
Erdogans actions are harder to predict. Turkeys president has become a major opponent to anything Trump does. Like one caught in the tentacles of a scuttlefish, Erdogan is wriggling between his demand that the United States extradite Fethullah Gulen, the leader of the rival religious movement whom he accuses of initiating the abortive coup against him in July 2016, and the trial in New York of Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab.
Zarrab has already incriminated the former Turkish economy minister and senior Turkish bank officials of money laundering and bypassing the sanctions on Iran. His testimony could be destructive to Erdogan if he submits documents tying the presidents family to defrauding the United States.
Also, Erdogan is waging an all-out war against American assistance to the Syrian Kurds, who are fighting successfully against the Islamic State. Trumps decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israels capital is therefore an excellent opportunity for Erdogan to conduct his war against Trump under cover of a Muslim consensus. Whether he cuts off ties with Israel depends on the messages he receives from Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Trump was very careful not to anger the Muslims in his announcement, emphasizing that the Temple Mounts status would remain the same. But the Arab and Muslim response stems from the spirit of the statement and the very recognition of Jerusalem, which runs counter to the international convention of the past 70 years. So the next arena could move to the UN General Assembly and Security Council. The question is whether there will be enough states to isolate the United States and render Trumps decision void.
Arab leaders and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are trying to persuade states around the world to stick to the international position, not to recognize Jerusalem and not to move their embassies to it. This is an uphill struggle because the United States can veto any Security Council resolution, while the General Assembly resolutions dont have teeth.
The Arab states can try to persuade states like Britain, France, Germany and Russia as well as Scandinavian and South American countries to oppose Trumps decision. Most of these nations have already expressed their objection. Israel will have a problem if only marginal states like Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, its new friends, and the Philippines, whose murderous president has already announced he would move the embassy to Jerusalem, will wave Israels flag in the capital.
The Arabs helplessness in view of Trumps announcement arises from the circumstances that developed in the Middle East since the Arab Spring. New coalitions have been formed between Arab states and the powerful nations; Arab states fight against other Arab states or boycott them. Iran poses a new threat to them, greater even than the terror organizations. States that once led diplomatic battles like Egypt, Iraq and Syria can no longer dictate moves, while the new leader, Saudi Arabia, suffered one failure after another every time it tried to dictate strategic moves to sister states.
Russia has pushed the United States into a corner, European states are happy to observe from the sidelines, making comments as though they were fans and the United States is blatantly ignoring demands of important leaders like the Saudi king, the Egyptian president and the Jordanian king, all of whom are close allies of Washington. Iran naturally denounced Trumps statement, and can now look gleefully at the American contempt for Irans Arab rivals, first and foremost Saudi Arabia.
The irony is that despite the anger with Trump, the Arab states and most Muslim states will continue to see the United States as a vital ally to preserve their interests, while the Israeli Palestinian conflict will remain a subject for dinner party talks and go on feeding the usual narratives.
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