President Trump’s decision in December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and commence moving the US embassy was harmful enough.
And still, he has managed – repeatedly – to make it worse. In the latest development, the State Department announced last week that a provisional U.S. embassy in Jerusalem will open on May 14, timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s establishment.
The Trump Administration’s original decision was fatally flawed.
In the absence of a final settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Palestinian claims to Jerusalem are addressed, the decision was blatantly one-sided. American credibility as an honest broker plummeted, Trump’s avowed goal of reaching the "ultimate deal" was set back, and the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and His Holiness Pope Francis condemned the new policy.
Making matters worse, Trump implemented a threat he made on Twitter by cutting U.S. funding to UNRWA – the UN agency that provides vital services to Palestinian refugees – to punish Palestinians for their reaction to the Jerusalem recognition.
Then, in a triumphalist speech to the Israeli Knesset, Vice President Mike Pence stated the embassy would open by the end of 2019, despite earlier estimates the process would take at least three years.
Further, President Trump went back on his prior indication that he was "not taking a position on final status issues, including the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem" by declaring he had taken Jerusalem "off the table."
This latest announcement, regarding the opening of an interim embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, is particularly significant. On this day, more than any other, Israeli and Palestinian narratives collide.
The flip-side of Israel’s May 14th celebration of statehood is the stateless Palestinians’ commemoration of the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homeland in the 1948 war.
By choosing this date, Trump privileges the Israeli narrative of 1948 over the Palestinian one – just as he recognized Israeli claims to Jerusalem while ignoring Palestinian claims.
Narrative issues are not mere symbolism. They impact prospects for peace. A joint poll in January by a Palestinian research center and an Israeli think tank showed that recognition of their respective narrative issues boosts support among both Israelis and Palestinians for a two-state solution.
As peace-builders rooted in America’s Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities, our shared interest is peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians. This is also a key U.S. national security interest. Trump’s handling of Israeli-Palestinian relations jeopardizes peace.
Rather than removing Jerusalem from the table, Trump thrust it to the forefront, contributing to the destructive and unnecessary transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a political to a religious struggle, playing into the hands of those on all sides who reject comprehensive peace.
The Trump administration is reportedly on the verge of releasing its Middle East peace plan. We are extremely concerned that Trump’s policies thus far foretell the nature of the plan.
If Trump wants to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, he must recalibrate U.S. policy to acknowledge legitimate claims for both Israelis and Palestinians. There is no time like the present: he will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Monday. We urge him to take that opportunity to communicate the following:
To begin, President Trump must support a shared Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the future Palestinian state, with details to be determined in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Regarding East Jerusalem, he should pressure Netanyahu to stop settlement construction and evictions of Palestinians from their homes.
And he should demand that Israel halt incendiary measures toward Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem, including Israel’s altering the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and proposing new taxes on church-owned properties.
Trump must also, at long last, commit to the two-state solution. Preserving its viability will require Trump to demand that Netanyahu freeze West Bank settlement construction and cease Israel’s creeping de facto annexation of the West Bank. Trump should also indicate that he will restore funding to UNRWA and seek Israeli cooperation in easing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Is Trump likely to do these things? Given his track record, we have no illusions. But we do have an obligation to speak out for the sake of Israelis and Palestinians who need and deserve peace. We hope all Americans concerned for the peoples of this beleaguered and holy land will join us.
Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon is the Executive Director at Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).
Imam Yahya Hendi is the Muslim Chaplain at Georgetown University and President of Clergy Beyond Borders
Dr. Debra Shushan is the Director of Policy and Government Relations at Americans for Peace Now.
The views expressed in this op-ed do not necessarily reflect those of the authors’ respective organizations.
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