Palestinians fear expansion of settlements, further Israeli aggression in wake of Trump's decision

A view from the Mount of Olives shows the Old City of Jerusalem with the Al Aqsa Mosque Complex. Israel seized West Jerusalem in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and grabbed the rest of the city in the 1967 Six-Day War.
A view from the Mount of Olives shows the Old City of Jerusalem with the Al Aqsa Mosque Complex. Israel seized West Jerusalem in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and grabbed the rest of the city in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Since taking office, U.S. President Trump has caused controversy with his decisions, but none of them as controversial as his Jerusalem decision, which affects not only Palestinians but also the Christians and Muslims around the world

Since he came to the Oval Office, U.S President Donald Trump has signed numerous controversial executive orders ranging from the travel ban targeting Muslims to the climate change policy reversal, the abolishment of Obamacare, America's withdrawal from the Transatlantic trade deal and "building a wall" between the U.S. and Mexico, implementing controversial changes that have had a ripple effect both at home and around the world. Yet, of all Trump's attempted reforms, his latest announcement to recognize Jerusalem – the holy city whose status is yet to be defined through peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine – as the Israeli capital has been met with the harshest response worldwide, as the move has rattled tender nerves.

Alarmed by the possible grave consequences of the decision, the overwhelming international majority – 128 countries – condemned Trump's unilateral declaration to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in a U.N. vote last Thursday, despite American caveats and threats to "remember" those who vote against the decision. Although the U.N.'s vote has come as a silver lining for the Palestinians, major concerns remain. Due to the unlikelihood that Trump will back down from his decision, there are major concerns that such steadfast American support on Israel will rekindle unrest in the region, deepen the conundrum and bring the moribund peace process to a further deadlock.

There are also mixed reactions to Trump's decision among Jews. Some moderate and liberal Jews consider the decision a reckless one that could provoke further conflict in the region, further isolate Israel in the region and cripple stalled peace talks between both sides of the conflict; talks which require resuscitation. On the other hand, Palestinians now have serious reservations over the U.S president's ability to mediate the process.

According to Palestinian Ambassador to Turkey Faed Mustafa, the Palestinians fear that the staunch American support shown under Trump will fuel Israel's intent to expand the illegal Jewish settlements already wreaking havoc in terms of peace talks. The Palestinian envoy said, "The American decision will no doubt encourage Israel to continue its aggression and breach of international law, as the American decision came as a reward for Israel instead of [holding Israel] accountable and subject to international law. Israel is now free to move ahead with its previous measures to Judaize Jerusalem and build more settlements. Israel considers itself as having settled the battle over Jerusalem, and will now seek to resolve the battle around the Jordan Valley, 'the areas adjacent to the Jordanian border,' by intensifying the settlement construction. Obviously, after the latest Trump decision, the settlement density in these areas increased," Mustafa said, adding that Palestinians now "expect more Israeli attacks on Palestine and across the region."

Mustafa further said, "The U.S. administration is no longer an acceptable party for overseeing the peace process."

Peace Efforts

Washington's efforts to bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict date back to the 1970s and include such stages as Foreign Minister Henry Kissinger's "shuttle diplomacy" under U.S. President Richard Nixon, the Camp David Deal under President Jimmy Carter in 1978 and the Wye River Agreement under President Bill Clinton in 1998. Efforts to resolve the conflict have long been a legacy U.S. presidents have sought to leave behind but due to various setbacks, the Oslo peace talks have failed in practice. Reluctance from both sides to concede regarding the status of Jerusalem has been cited among the major reasons for the failure of the peace talks. The other two chapters of the talks, the fate of the Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements were also left unresolved. Among Palestinians, there is a strong consensus that Washington has shown a lack of impartiality necessary for serving as mediator. This claim has also been underpinned by some American officials who have humbly admitted that Washington has occasionally acted as the "lawyer" of the Israelis during the negotiations.

Under the Obama administration, President Barack Obama had one optimal objective in mind regarding the Palestinian issue: He aimed to approach the conflict even-handedly. This approach required the former president to raise a critical voice against Israel's illegal settlements from time to time. The way that Obama approached the Palestinian issue, his efforts to integrate Iran back into the global system and his bid to limit the influence of lobbyists on White House decisions have all driven a wedge between Washington and its long-standing "special" friend. Obama thought that unconditional and invariable support for Israel was incimal to U.S. interests and chose to treat Israel as a "normal" state.

However, the tide turned right away as the pro-Israel Trump administration came into power, further upgrading the level of U.S.-Israeli cooperation. Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump questioned the nuclear deal penned with Iran under the Obama administration and vowed to repeal the agreement, motivated primarily by efforts to please Israel. Now, Trump's decision regarding Jerusalem is another example of his efforts to fulfill his campaign pledges, and has been welcomed by hard-liners in the American-Jewish community.

It is common to observe American presidents attempting to woo Jewish voters with pro-Israel rhetoric during election season. This political move aims to not only muster support from pro-Israel interest groups but also to win votes from evangelical Christians who are a large base of support for Israel. While out on the campaign trail, U.S. presidential candidates often make promises for the benefit of Israel which are motivated by aims to receive funds from one of the most powerful pro-Israel lobbyists in the U.S. – The American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – to pursue their campaign goals more effectively. In fact, this promise to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – the prevailing means to court American Jews – is not unique to Trump. Along the same lines, under former President Obama – whose administrative term saw U.S.-Israeli relations decline to their lowest levels in recent history due to the latter's distant position on Israel – Jerusalem was also declared "the capital of Israel" during a campaign speech delivered to AIPAC during Obama's candidacy. Upon being elected however, Obama immediately walked back on that statement, becoming a stringent backer of the two-state solution while firmly denoting that Jerusalem's status should be negotiated by the two sides via peace talks. In a similar vein, former President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton each promised the recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital during their presidential bids as candidates. These promises were never put into practice during either presidential term.

Who will mediate in the conflict now?

Now, as the U.S. patently loses its role in brokering peace between Israel and Palestine, discussions as to who will fill the vacuum have commenced. President Trump has, in layman's terms, opened the region up to possible Russian penetration, as it is no secret that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be very eager to seize the opportunity to expand Russian influence in the region. On the other hand, France also seems to be tempted by that possible role as well, and all eyes have turned toward French President Emmanuel Macron since he conferred with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas one after the other, raising speculations over whether Macron aspires to become mediator in the protracted peace negotiations.

According to French Senator Natalie Goulet, neither the U.S. nor the Arab states can mediate in the process as it stands now. She says that even though the Arab authorities issued a joint statement to condemn the decision, they remain "deeply divided" as the majority of Arab leaders act in accordance with their own political interests.

"No one thought of imposing a simple embargo on U.S. products or increasing the price of oil imports on the U.S. No one has recalled their ambassadors from Washington to show an opposing stance," Goulet said, underlining that Arab countries are not willing to imperil their own economic interests with the U.S.

She also says that the effectiveness of Israeli lobbyists in affecting U.S. policy also fails to help bring any peace to the Middle East. "The U.S. has lost all its credibility and I am that sure France will be the best mediator in the process."

Motive behind Trump's decision

On the other hand, President Trump's decision to name Jerusalem as the capital of Israel comes at a time when he has been subjected to serious accusations of secretly cooperating with Russia during the presidential election which ultimately brought him to power. While he denies the accusations, the outcome of the ongoing investigation could potentially eject the leader from the White House. Numerous experts believe that Trump's Jerusalem decision was a bid to both divert attention from the investigation against him as well as to gain support from pro-Israel lobbyists to help him get out of this impasse. While he sought to tighten his control in inner politics, he concurrently saved the clout of his counterpart Netanyahu, who has been coping with his own allegations of corruption at home.

Professor Beril Dedeoğlu says there is both an inner and outer basis for Trump's decision. In terms of domestic politics, Trump aimed to draw in the support of pro-Israel lobbyists by cementing Netanyahu's position in Israel.

"[However,] Trump has some broader purposes [internationally]. He deliberately aims to provoke the Muslim world and push them toward radicalization so that he can implement his anti-Muslim policies. He aims to find some legitimate grounds to materialize his strategy against what he has actually 'radicalized' himself," professor Dededoğlu says.

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