JERUSALEM—There were warnings of a new Palestinian uprising and calls for protests at U.S. embassies, dire predictions that hopes for peace would be dashed irretrievably — and expressions of relief from Israelis who have waited half a century for the world to remove the asterisk next to this city’s name.
Yet on the whole, the responses in the region to reports that U.S. President Donald Trump will declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel — something no president has done in the nearly 70 years since Israel’s founding — remained hedged, if not entirely restrained, on Saturday. Arabs and Israelis alike were impatient to see whether Trump would really do it, precisely how he would define Jerusalem, and what else he might say or do to qualify the change.
Trump’s announcement, expected in a speech Wednesday, would amount to the not-quite-fulfillment of a campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a step for which many of Trump’s Jewish and evangelical supporters, and their allies in the Israeli right wing, have been clamouring.
For Israelis, it would acknowledge the obvious: that their government sits in Jerusalem, mainly on its western side — though the United States, along with the rest of the world, has not recognized the Holy City as Israeli territory, particularly since the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, when Israel conquered East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital.
“That Trump will declare it? I’m glad, in case anyone was in any doubt,” said Betty Mizrahi, 40, a government worker living in Har Homa, a neighbourhood built on captured territory. “Jerusalem was always the capital. That people deny it is another matter.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas adviser Mahmoud Habash says Saturday if Trump were to do so it would amount to a “complete destruction of the peace process.”
Speaking in Abbas’ presence, Habash said “the world will pay the price” for any change in Jerusalem’s status.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said dispensing with that long-standing reticence would reveal the United States as “so incredibly one-sided and biased” that it “would be the total annihilation of any chances of peace, or any American role in peacemaking.”
“They’re sending a clear message to the world: We’re done,” she said.
While physically moving the embassy would require little more than putting a new sign on existing U.S. consular offices in Jerusalem, Trump’s declaring Jerusalem the capital would carry great symbolic power, Palestinian officials said.
“If anything, it is worse, actually,” said Nasser al-Kidwa, a member of the central committee of Fatah, the dominant PLO faction, and a nephew of its Yasser Arafat, its one-time leader. Recognition matters, he said, “not the stones” of an embassy building.
Ahmed Yousef, an adviser to Ismail Haniya, leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, was similarly critical of Trump’s expected declaration. “I don’t understand why he wants to antagonize over a billion Muslims around the world,” he said.
The specific way in which Trump makes his declaration, however, could mean a dramatically different response on both sides of the conflict.
If he just refers to “Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital, or refers to the city’s present municipal borders, Trump would be likely to set off a strong backlash in much of the Arab world, analysts said.
“For Palestinians, this will be perceived as dividing the cake while negotiating over it,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a Jerusalem-based analyst at International Crisis Group.
Ashrawi warned it could lead to repercussions “that would not be easily contained,” including violence: “To people who are looking for an excuse, this would be a ready-made excuse.”
If Trump were to limit his statement to West Jerusalem, however, it likely would antagonize supporters in the pro-Israel camp, by undercutting their claim to a united capital throughout the city and acknowledging Palestinian designs on East Jerusalem.
Any attempt at deliberate ambiguity is unlikely to fly, because the United States will be forced to specify the territorial definition of Jerusalem that the president was relying upon, said Daniel Shapiro, who was President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel.
“It accomplishes so little that I wonder if it’s worth that headache,” he said.
The timing of Trump’s declaration was baffling both to those who warned against it and some who welcomed it.
Both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are awaiting a proposal by Trump’s administration to restart the peace process. And recent meetings in Riyadh between Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and, in turn, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Abbas, have fuelled speculation that Trump and Salman are trying to push through a plan.
Given the prince’s eagerness to combat Iran, Palestinians are concerned he could embrace a proposal unfavourable to them, for an alliance with Israel against Iran.
But Arab governments, even Saudi Arabia’s, could be compelled to rebuke a declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, experts said.
“Pushing this issue now, in advance of a peace process at a time when the administration has zero credibility on this issue, at a time when it wants to engage the Saudis, makes absolutely no sense,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator under past Republican and Democratic administrations. “It’s a self-inflicted wound.”
Perhaps no Arab leader has more at risk in a cementing of Israel’s hold on Jerusalem as its capital than King Abdullah II of Jordan, whose dynasty has defined itself as the custodian of Al-Aqsa, Islam’s third-holiest site. While the king can fire subordinates who fail him, Zalzberg said, he is viewed as personally responsible for Al-Aqsa and Trump’s declaration “could contribute dramatically to the erosion of the king’s popularity and legitimacy.”
Abdullah has been in Washington for more than a week, pressing the administration not to take this step, according to Arab news media. Petra, the Jordanian news agency, said the king had warned that changing the United States’ posture on Jerusalem would threaten a two-state solution and “could be potentially exploited by terrorists to stoke anger, frustration and desperation in order to spread their ideologies.”
Palestinian officials across the political spectrum made similar warnings. In Gaza, Hamas issued a statement calling on Palestinians to “incite an uprising in Jerusalem so that this conspiracy does not pass.” Yousef, the adviser to the Hamas leader, said Trump’s move would drive up anti-American sentiment and “decimate whatever good will they have here.”
And a Hamas representative based in Lebanon, Ali Barakeh, said the group probably would respond to Trump by calling for a new intifada, or uprising, and for Abbas to quit negotiations, “since the Americans won’t achieve anything for them.”
But Ayman Rigib, a Fatah leader in Cairo, worried aloud that Abbas would not push back firmly enough. “This is a new low for us as Palestinians,” he said. “We are not only weak, we also have a leader who might actually accept this deal.”
Along the 1967 line in a Jerusalem quieted by the Jewish Sabbath, Hani Juwaihan, 28, one of the relatively few East Jerusalem Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, said he wished Trump would leave well enough alone.
“It’s not his right to decide,” said Juwaihan, who lives in the Al Thuri neighbourhood of East Jerusalem but works as a cook at La-La Land, a restaurant near the beach in Tel Aviv.
“If there’s peace, all well and good, we’ll live together without any problem,” he said. “But in the absence of peace, it’s not for Trump to decide. Jerusalem is a holy place. Nobody can decide.”
With files from The Associated Press