RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinians are ringing alarm bells over Donald Trump’s stated intention to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel to contested Jerusalem, fearing quick action once he takes office as U.S. president next week. They say an embassy move would kill any hopes for negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and rile the region by undercutting Muslim and Christian claims to the holy city.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Jerusalem forms the core of rival, religiously tinged national narratives of Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides claim it as a capital, and disagreement over how to divide Jerusalem helped derail previous U.S.-led talks on establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
From Israel’s founding in 1948 until the 1967 Mideast war, Jerusalem was divided into a western sector that served as Israel’s capital and an eastern, traditionally Arab sector run by Jordan. Israel captured east Jerusalem in 1967, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and annexed an expanded east Jerusalem to its capital.
Today, more than 37 percent of 850,000 city residents are Palestinians. East Jerusalem’s Old City houses major Jewish, Muslim and Christian shrines revered by billions around the world. The Palestinians seek a state in the lands captured by Israel, with east Jerusalem as a capital.
WHY ARE THE PALESTINIANS UPSET?
The Palestinians argue that moving the embassy, now located in Israel’s metropolis of Tel Aviv, amounts to U.S. recognition of all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. They say this would close the door to negotiating a “two-state solution” because it would pre-judge the outcome of one of the most explosive disputes in the conflict and disqualify Washington as mediator. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he could never accept a deal in which Israel keeps the entire city. An embassy move could further weaken the 81-year-old Abbas politically.
WHAT ABOUT ISRAEL?
Many Jews view Jerusalem as their religious and cultural center. Israeli government spokesman David Keyes says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “thinks it would be great” for the embassy to move to Jerusalem. Netanyahu had tense relations with outgoing President Barack Obama, in part because of Israel’s settlement expansion on occupied lands. Netanyahu has said he is willing to negotiate a border deal with the Palestinians, but that Jerusalem is off the table. Two of Netanyahu’s predecessors had engaged in negotiations with the Palestinians on a partition of the city.
In unusually blunt language, Jordan warned last week that an embassy move is a “red line” and would inflame the Arab and Muslim worlds. Jordan serves as custodian of the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, the third-holiest site of Islam, located in east Jerusalem on the same spot that Jews revere as the Temple Mount. The compound, home to the biblical Jewish Temples, is considered the holiest site in Judaism.
A U.S. embassy move could be seen as diminishing Jordan’s special religious role in Jerusalem, a pillar of legitimacy of the kingdom’s Hashemite rulers who trace their ancestry back to Prophet Muhammed. Tensions with the U.S could undermine their military alliance, including the fight against Islamic State extremists in neighboring Syria and Iraq. Jordan’s discreet security ties with Israel also could be at risk.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER ARAB AND MUSLIM STATES?
They have been less outspoken. Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit has said an embassy move would be a “huge setback” to peace efforts. League spokesman Hossam Zaki said the 22-state organization hopes Trump will become more aware of the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once in office, but that “the new U.S. administration’s positions toward Palestine don’t look good.” Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, has warm relations with both Israel and Trump and has remained silent. The 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation has urged the U.S. to refrain from steps that could create tensions in the region.
IS TRUMP SERIOUS?
Like presidential contenders before him, Trump made a campaign promise to relocate the embassy. Unlike the others, he has since signaled that he is serious about it. Adviser Kellyanne Conway has said that moving the embassy is a “very big priority” for Trump. A U.S. official has said Trump’s transition team asked the State Department for logistics advice on a move. Trump’s designated ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, backs an embassy move.
DOES THIS GO AGAINST INTERNATIONAL CONSENSUS?
The U.N. Security Council last month affirmed east Jerusalem’s status as occupied territory, part of a resolution that condemned Israeli settlement activity as illegal. Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has warned that an embassy move could trigger “an absolute explosion in the region.” On Sunday, representatives of dozens of countries, including Kerry, will affirm support for a negotiated two-state solution at a Mideast conference in France.
DO THE PALESTINIANS HAVE A PLAN?
For now, they hope to generate international pressure on Trump. Abbas asked Trump in a letter to reconsider and urged world leaders to intervene. On Saturday, Abbas is meeting Pope Francis in hopes of a supportive statement. The Vatican has said it seeks an internationally guaranteed status for Jerusalem that safeguards its sacred character. An Abbas aide heads to Moscow for talks Friday with Russia’s foreign minister. The Palestinian foreign minister is to raise the issue at a Jan. 19 conference of OIC, the alliance of Islamic countries. This weekend, the Palestinians have called for regional mosque and church prayers in a show of protest.
AND IF THE EMBASSY IS MOVED?
Palestinian officials say they would seriously consider voiding a 1993 mutual recognition agreement that created the basis for negotiations with Israel. The deal included a pledge to resolve all issues, including Jerusalem, through negotiations. It paved the way for the establishment of the Palestinian autonomy government in parts of the West Bank, and ending it would put the financial burden of providing services of some 2.3 million Palestinians on Israel.
Associated Press writers Josef Federman in Jerusalem, Maggie Michael in Cairo, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed reporting.