By Claude Salhani
Will US President Donald Trump’s highly controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv provide the spark needed to revive peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians?
Will it wake up the Palestinians from their political slumber?
Will it make the Israelis realise that they cannot go on occupying another people indefinitely?
Or will that spark flare the other way and reignite violence in the region?
Pundits have been divided on the answers to those questions, with some asking whether the American president’s decision may offer an opportunity for a real game changer. Wishful thinking, say the pessimists — and the realists.
Trump stated that his directive was an overdue acknowledgement of the facts on the ground. Because Jerusalem is the seat of the Israeli government, should it not be recognised as such by the international community?
Practically all world leaders, including many close US allies, condemned Trump’s decision and reaffirmed that the status of Jerusalem should be decided during peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Trump’s initiative could revitalise Arab and European sympathy for Palestinian sentiments throughout the world, resulting in a political setback for Israel.
Trump’s claim that he could negotiate between the antagonists is about as outside the realm of possibilities as can be. He does not realise the complexity of the problem. The Middle East issue has over the decades stomped US presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and others and a slew of conflict resolution experts from Gunnar Jarring to George Mitchell. All have failed. For Trump to succeed would be nothing short of a miracle.
Much of the debate has to do with the perception of Trump and the controversies he systematically sparks, not about the policy itself. There is really nothing new here as previous US presidents, including Barack Obama and George W. Bush, announced their recognition of Jerusalem as the site for the US Embassy in Israel even if they refrained from announcing its transfer.
Can such a move force the Trump administration to be more forthcoming with the Palestinians? That again is highly unlikely as Trump’s positions are often driven by his inflated ego. His Jerusalem plan dimmed the prospects of peaceful dialogue and pushed the Palestinians’ moderate leadership towards unprecedented extremes.
One certainty is going to be the rise of Iranian interference in Lebanese politics and consequently more activity along Israel’s northern frontier.
This points to another aspect of the possible ripple effects of the Jerusalem crisis. A recent declaration by Hezbollah hinted at the border between Israel and Lebanon becoming a flashpoint of violence. The pro-Iranian forces have come a long way since their last round of fighting with Israel a few summers ago. Hezbollah is better equipped, better trained and its fighters have had several years of combat experience fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
There is little doubt that Iran and its proxies in the region will milk the Jerusalem issue, hoping to extract whatever political mileage they can from the developments. That seems to be the endgame of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has engaged in all sorts of inciteful theatrics for the sake of creating a wider base of support among Islamist supporters at home and in the region.
Public opinion in the Arab and Muslim worlds seem, however, to have grown more realistic if not fatalistic since the “Arab spring’s” catastrophic process in the region.
The bottom line is that in an attempt to restore its deeply frayed legitimacy in Lebanon and elsewhere since its intervention in Syria, Hezbollah could be tempted to open a front with Israel. That is likely, however, to be an Iran-supported sectarian front at best. The Arab world is busy extinguishing its fires.