The United States relocated its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 14 after a controversial decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The move represents a departure from previous U.S. foreign policy, which maintained an ambiguous position on Jerusalem’s status in the hopes that future peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians would lead to a resolution of the seemingly intractable issue.
The issuance of the decision on May 14 was significant because it coincides with Israel’s declaration of independence and, subsequently, falls close to the Palestinian Nakba on May 15, which refers to the period when Palestinians were forced out of Palestine in 1948. The relocation of the U.S. embassy and the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will have significant short and long-term consequences for U.S. relations with the Palestinian territories and within the broader Middle East, while also cementing the country’s historically close relationship with Israel.
In the short-term, the decision to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem will further destabilize the region at an already tumultuous time. The move coincides with the culmination of series of protests, called the Great March of Return, that began on March 30 in Gaza, to commemorate the Nakba. As the new embassy was inaugurated, Israeli troops were simultaneously killing dozens of Gazans who had turned out in protest. Tens of thousands of protesters attempted to cross the security fence that separates Gaza from Israel and return to their homeland on that very day. The relocation of the U.S. embassy will only add to the Palestinians’ anger and increase the likelihood of attacks on Israeli and American targets.
Palestinians in the both the West Bank and Gaza have responded to the relocation with massive demonstrations and several Arab nations have held Palestinian solidarity protests denouncing both the U.S. and Israel. Meanwhile, much of the international community has condemned the decision as a rash mistake, furthering the growing divide between U.S. and European foreign policy in the region. The fracturing of relations began with the U.S. decision in April 2017 to pull out of the Paris Accords and Trump’s May 12 announcement that the U.S. would reinstate sanctions on Iran and withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, in spite of pleas from European leaders to stick to the agreement. This decision will only further American isolation from its European allies.
Adding to the tension, the Palestinian Authority has called on Arab and Islamic leaders to cut ties with Guatemala and Paraguay in response to those countries’ decisions to follow the U.S. in relocating their embassies to Jerusalem on May 16 and May 21, respectively. Both countries are likely trying to strengthen relations with the U.S. and Israel in an effort to ensure generous foreign aid packages and privileged trading statuses. The Czech Republic, Romania, and Honduras are allegedly considering moving their embassies as well.
In the longer term, the relocation will cement perceptions of the U.S. as a biased mediator, thus serving as the nail in the coffin of U.S.-brokered peace talks. The move will also embolden Israel in its policies towards the Palestinians. The U.S. has long been perceived by the Arab world as a close ally of Israel, but it was able to maintain some degree credibility by taking a neutral stance on issues such as Jerusalem. Husam S. Zomlot, the head of the PLO General Delegation to the U.S. said in a call to reporters in December 2017, the decision has “injected anxiety, pressure, anger, resentment all over,” according to Al Jazeera English.
Significantly, Palestinians appear to be highly unlikely to accept any U.S. participation in future peace talks for some time. The leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, told the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) during a recent conference that the U.S. would be banned from all future peace talks. He added, “[W]e shall not accept any role for the United States in the peace process; they have proven their full bias in favor of Israel.”
Finally, the U.S. decision has given Israel the green light to go ahead with its current policies towards Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel is likely to proceed with laying claim to additional Palestinian land via illegal settlements. In addition, Israel is expected to continue perpetrating human rights violations against Palestinians, particularly those in Gaza. Trump may well think that the Palestinian people’s hard feelings will subside after a time and that their leaders will eventually return to the negotiating table. But if not, Trump will have grossly underestimated the importance of Jerusalem to the Palestinian cause and Palestinian people’s capacity to hold a grudge.