Numerous repercussions and perceptions have emerged following US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and start the operational procedures to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to [occupied] Jerusalem. Yet, the most dangerous part of this decision, in my opinion, is that it attributes once again a religious dimension to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — a religious ideological conflict between Muslims and Jews that leaves no room for compromise. This comes after many years of exerting tremendous efforts during which moderate Arab states have played a major role in stripping away the religious dimension of the conflict and making it a purely political one to be resolved through political frameworks and mechanisms. Therefore, President Trump’s decision has effectively harmed Israel rather than serve its interests. Israel has now been placed in confrontation with not only the Palestinians and the Arabs in the region, but also with Muslims worldwide. The region is now put at risk, especially as history has shown that religious conflicts are the most dangerous. A good example of this is the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) between Catholics and Protestants in Europe and the ensuing catastrophes and tragedies that claimed millions of lives and drowned the continent in a quagmire of wars. Europe’s bitter experience with religious wars makes the old continent more aware than the United States about the dangers of the Jerusalem decision, especially as the city is religiously and ideologically sensitive for the approximately 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide.
President Trump’s decision has revitalised the religious dimension of the issue by giving a “kiss of life” to extremists and radicals. Before the announcement, these groups had been subdued by the heavy setbacks suffered in recent years; now, they are raising their voices, shouting their religious slogans, and reigniting their religious confrontation with the Jews. They are also criticising modern Arab governments and the peace process as a whole — this has incited both Arabs and Muslims to revolt. Compared to other solvable issues such as Israeli colonies, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and water security, the issue of Jerusalem with its symbolic status in Islam is more complex. Because of this, these extremist movements have taken advantage of Jerusalem’s special status in the peace process. Jerusalem has a prominent place in the hearts of Muslims and a symbolic significance in Islamic tradition and faith, as it is home to the third holiest mosque from which the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) ascended. I believe the Trump administration has underestimated the importance of the city and the long-term implications of the decision for US policies and interests in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
The Jerusalem decision is also a major setback for all serious and sincere calls, efforts, and initiatives for religious reform. In recent years, the Arab and Islamic regions have launched initiatives based on values of coexistence and tolerance. They have renounced violence as well as religious, doctrinal, and racial discrimination — and these efforts have begun to bear fruit. President Trump’s announcement, however, has renewed the Islamic-Jewish dimension of the conflict, providing an opportunity for radicals to voice their ideology at the expense of moderation, tolerance, and dialogue. This is evident through the Arab and Islamic reactions to the decision, as religious mobilisation calls target not only Israel and the US, but also Jews in general.
In this context, Arab and moderate Islamic countries that have dealt with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on political rather than religious grounds are placed in a difficult position following the decision. These countries have defended the peace process, considering it the best strategic option to solve the Palestinian issue. They have also exerted great efforts over recent years to push this process forward and have proposed historic initiatives, most notably the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. President Trump’s decision has now consolidated the position and voice of extremists and radicals — those who seek religious wars, oppose the peace process, and exploit vulnerabilities in the Arab and Islamic regions. It has allowed them to stir emotions and cause sedition and instability in the region to achieve personal goals, some of which are not even related to Jerusalem or Palestine. In an already chaotic region, the decision may create further instability.
President Trump’s decision is also serving the interests of Iran — a country led by religious extremists — and its affiliated sectarian militias, diverting Arabs and Muslims’ attention from this country to Israel and the US. For its part, Iran has taken advantage of this situation by reiterating its claims of defending Muslims, Jerusalem, and Palestinians. It has also repeated deceitful slogans to rouse the emotions of Arabs and Muslims and attribute to the US the image of an enemy rather than an ally. Ironically, since assuming power, President Trump, in collaboration with Arab and moderate Islamic countries, has viewed Iran as the single greatest threat to be addressed. This was reflected in the Arab Islamic American Summit held in Riyadh in May 2017. However, his decision has provided a strategic opportunity for Iran and its affiliated militias and extremist groups, while placing his moderate Arab allies, those which face Iran’s expansionist and terrorist projects, in a difficult position.
The Jerusalem announcement effectively ends the US role as a sponsor and guarantor of the peace process. It strips the process from its essence and feasibility, undermining the very foundations on which it was based — dating back to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, at which the status of Jerusalem was a core issue. It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Israelis, as well as Muslims and Israelis depends on finding a just resolution for this issue. There is international consensus and US recognition that the resolution of the Jerusalem issue should be conducted only through a settlement that involves a negotiation process and final status issues — and not driven by any other means, such as individual and coercive decisions or by de facto situations.
Many international actors have played roles in the Arab-Israeli peace process since it was first launched. The American role, however, has remained the most pivotal and decisive. Without the US, peace cannot be reached, especially considering that Washington is the only world actor capable of changing Israel’s attitude by compelling it to support and implement the peace process. This exposes just how risky the US decision on Jerusalem is because it indicates that Washington has aligned entirely with Israel and is no longer trusted by the Palestinians and Arabs.
The current US administration clearly adopts the Israeli de facto version of “peace,” which is based on colony expansion in the occupied territories. This policy neglects the very first foundations of the peace process, notably the land for peace principle and the two-state solution.
President Trump, in his statement to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, conditioned the two-state solution to the consent of both parties. He did not view the solution as undebatable, regardless of Israel’s consent or rejection. When he received Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in February 2017, President Trump said that the two-state solution may not be the only option to reach peace! The White House said then that the US would no longer insist on this solution. Now the American position is aligned with that of Netanyahu. This is a radical departure from the previous American position. Since he first assumed power in 1996, Netanyahu has rejected the “land for peace” principle and instead called for the alternative principle of “peace for peace.” All former US presidents were committed to ensuring Israel’s security, since its establishment in 1948. They were no less concerned with its support and protection than President Trump is now. Yet, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama refused to implement the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 that requires the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They refused out of the conviction that a one-sided decision on Jerusalem that disregards the city’s religious and historical sensitivity would produce instability and conflict.
The Palestine cause might not always be an Arab and Islamic priority. Arabs and Muslims are at times preoccupied by their own problems; the inter-Arab or inter-Muslim disputes might run so deep that it is sometimes difficult to perceive a unified Arab or Islamic position regarding various issues. Yet, the issue of Jerusalem has a special status as it relates to religion and faith. Thus, when Jerusalem is threatened or assaulted, Arabs and Muslims set aside all other priorities, problems, and differences and unite under a common cause. This is something that both Israel and the US underestimate.
The current and expected Arab, Islamic, and international reaction to the American decision on Jerusalem is an important lesson for Washington to consider in any American approach to the advancement of the peace process.
I believe Europe is capable of playing a major and positive role in handling the repercussions of the US decision on Jerusalem and mitigating its negative impacts. Being closer to our region, Europe is more aware of our sensitive issues, crises, and problems. Therefore, Europe is urged, through its ties with the US, to react and restore the status quo. This can be done by prompting Washington to issue clear assurances of its commitment to the original peace process mandates and the two-state solution. Europe could also prompt Washington to exercise effective pressure on Israel to accept such a solution.
Accordingly, the US would considerably benefit from the support of moderate Arab countries that believe in the peace process, primarily the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco. This is because the objective of these countries is to reach a genuine and viable peace — such a peace can be reached only by adopting the two-state solution and by settling the issue of Jerusalem by declaring East Jerusalem the capital of the state of Palestine, both of which have been provided for by internationally recognised resolutions and the peace process terms of reference.
To conclude, Israel’s security, regional recognition, and peaceful coexistence with its neighbors cannot be ensured by vulnerable, short-term gains. Rather, only profound, long-term, durable, and viable settlements can achieve this peace because they are based on justice, equity, and international law.
Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi is a UAE Author and Director-General of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.