Palestine- Israel two-state solution is off the rails

First published by the Arab Weekly on 15/4/2018

Whatever the real motives, the outcome would be an entrenchment of Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

Another brick in the wall. A 2016 file picture shows Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara during an inauguration ceremony of Hahemek rail line. (AP)

Early in his administration, US President Donald Trump stated that he would support whatever the parties agreed to in relation to a one-state or two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was a major departure for the United States, which had consistently stated that the two-state solution was the only way to achieve peace. Former Secretary of State John Kerry had argued in December 2016 that if Israel’s choice was “one state, Israel can either be Jewish or Democratic. It cannot be both.”

During the 2015 election campaign, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised there would be “no Palestinian state under his watch.” His coalition partners agree either implicitly or explicitly that the two-state solution is not on the table, particularly following Trump’s election and the formation of a US negotiating team that is wholly pro-Israeli, both in tone and in action.

The Trump administration is still working on the “ultimate deal” that it claims will be difficult for both Palestinians and Israelis to accept. The undertones to the Palestinians are that this will be for “implementation, not negotiation.”

The United States angered Palestinians by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cutting funds to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, the agency tasked with delivering services to Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas severed ties with the US team, arguing the United States cannot be an honest peace broker having made these two critical decisions. However, his efforts to convince other countries or the European Union to take a lead and his call for an international peace conference to take place in mid-2018 have not borne fruit.

The Great March of Return has seen tens of thousands of Palestinians camp and demonstrate on the Gaza border with Israel calling for implementation of their right of return, which the Israelis met with violence, killing tens of protesters and injuring thousands.

Israel refuses to allow the refugees to return, 70 years since UN Resolution 194 giving them this right was adopted. The Gaza march has highlighted the Palestinian refugee problem to the US team, making it clear that, unless the issue is resolved, there will be no peace, whether in one or two states.

The Palestinian leadership clings to the two-state solution despite the ever-increasing number of settlements and settlers in the West Bank. Israel is making it impossible to achieve. It is expanding settlements and key members of Netanyahu’s coalition, such as Education Minister Naftali Bennett, have called for annexing the West Bank.

In any case, Israel has been acting as if it has sovereignty over the whole of historic Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Its latest project demonstrates this clearly. Reports claim that it is starting construction of a railway that would cross into occupied territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The three-phase project would see the railway established on 200 hectares of land. Palestinian agricultural land, trees and water sources would be destroyed in the process. The plan includes building 11 West Bank railways with a length of 475km and 30 stations, some of which would be in illegal settlements.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation condemned the Israeli government for the project.

It is likely that the plan would encourage further settlement construction, as housing in illegal colonies is generally cheaper than it is in Israeli towns and cities. This, together with fast railway connections, would lead to more Israelis residing in illegal settlements. Their opportunities for interaction with the Palestinians would be further limited because it is not clear how Israeli security concerns would be addressed to allow Palestinians to use the railway.

Going further, Reuters reported that Israeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz recently proposed linking Israel’s freight network with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, a project he presented to Trump Middle East Envoy Jason Greenblatt. He claimed this could benefit the Palestinians “If the Palestinians connect to a railway system, the entire area will get a significant economic boost,” he said.

Whatever the real motives, the outcome would be an entrenchment of Israel’s presence in the West Bank and an erosion of the last possibilities for a Palestinian state.

Israel claims it does not want to see one state emerge as a long-term solution to the conflict. However, these projects are a clear indication that it is creating a one-state reality that can either mean equal rights for all in one state or an apartheid state in which Jewish Israelis dominate Palestinians. It is derailing the two-state solution.

Reconciliation or permanent division for Palestinians?

First published by the Arab Weekly on 1/4/2018

The takeaway message on reconciliation is that it has been kicked into the long grass.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) attends a meeting with the Revolutionary Council of the ruling Fatah party in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on March 1. (AFP)
At an impasse. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) attends a meeting with the Revolutionary Council of the ruling Fatah party in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on March 1. (AFP)

The Palestinian people are reeling from two explosions that effectively demolished hopes for Fatah/Hamas reconciliation. One was a real explosion that targeted the Palestinian prime minister’s convoy as it entered Gaza and the other was a political grenade that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas lobbed into the mix during a speech to the Palestinian leadership shortly after that incident.

Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s car escaped the attack but vehicles at the back of the convoy were damaged. Hamdallah went on to inaugurate a water treatment plant as planned and then left the besieged strip to Ramallah. Accusations followed as to who was responsible for the attack. The Palestinian Authority immediately blamed Hamas, which opened an investigation into the attack but denied responsibility for it.

It is true that Hamas is in charge of security in the Gaza Strip following the failure of repeated attempts at reconciliation to extend the jurisdiction of the Hamdallah government over Gaza. It is, therefore, embarrassing for Hamas that this incident happened under its watch. However, it is not immediately obvious what Hamas would gain from attacking the PA prime minister.

Hamas released a video of its investigation. Suspects Anas Abu Khousa and Abdulhadi Alash’hab died during attempts to capture them. Another suspect was injured and was hospitalised. Two security officers died in the confrontation.

The Hamas video includes confessions by others saying they helped Abu Khousa plan and carry out the attack and concludes with the assertion that the investigation revealed that the bomb was primed a day before Hamas Security Chief Tawfiq Abu Nuaim was informed of Hamdallah’s impending visit. While it did not accuse either the PA or Israel of orchestrating the attack, the video asked: “Who informed the cell of the PM’s visit?”

Abbas did not wait for the outcome of Hamas’s investigation, opting to address the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah with what was a truly explosive speech. Abbas castigated Hamas for the attack and for scuppering reconciliation efforts that have come to a halt.

Abbas claimed that the PA had engaged with reconciliation efforts since October 12, 2017, but “was shocked to have achieved nothing in relation to enabling the government to take control in Gaza.”

He claimed the attack was part of a “plan” to separate Gaza from the motherland to create the “state of Gaza” and that this was always a US and Israeli goal, which started with the coup in 2007. Now US President Donald Trump wants to implement this alongside taking Jerusalem and the refugee issues off the negotiating table, making his “ultimate deal” unacceptable to Abbas.

He claimed the recent humanitarian summit at the White House on Gaza was part of the Trump plan.

Abbas asserted that, following intensive meetings in Egypt, Hamas had said it would implement conditions set by the PA in previous agreements but said Hamas reneged when it told the PA that “security is yours above ground but ours below.” This was a reference to what Abbas claimed Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar meant when promising to build tunnels and manufacture more rockets in the Gaza Strip.

Abbas gave Hamas an ultimatum: Either the PA takes control of everything — in accordance with the agreements — and therefore responsibility for Gaza or Hamas can keep control but that means taking full responsibility for the Gaza Strip.

Abbas concluded with a promise that he will take all “national, legal and financial actions necessary to protect the national project” without outlining what these would be. He looked angry, tired and short of ideas.

The takeaway message on reconciliation is that it has been kicked into the long grass. It may even be the case that 2018 will see what Palestinians always hoped is a temporary division between their two biggest factions become permanent. This does not augur well for Palestinians in general and for the 2 million besieged residents of Gaza, in particular. The future is bleak.

Obituary: Farewell to Rim Banna, Palestinian cultural icon

First published by the Arab Weekly on 1/4/2018

Banna performed her music in a youthful, magical manner, which reached deep into the hearts of her audiences.
A 2009 file picture shows Palestinian singer Rim Banna performing during a concert in Damascus. (AFP)
Prolific legacy. A 2009 file picture shows Palestinian singer Rim Banna performing during a concert in Damascus. (AFP)

I never had the honour of meeting Rim Banna or hearing her sing in person but that did not stop me from shedding a tear when I heard she had succumbed to her illness a few days after Mother’s Day. She died March 24 in her birthplace, Nazareth, at the age of 51 after a 9-year battle with breast cancer.

My tears were for the loss of a Palestinian cultural icon and a supporter of justice whose smile lit up every photo or video I had seen of her. Her smile transcended borders and reached into every Palestinian home from China to Chile, from Finland to Cape Town.

If proof were needed of where her biggest love lay, it came during her funeral when mourners movingly recited “Mawtini”

(“My Homeland”), the unofficial national anthem of Palestine. Banna dedicated her life and much of her art to the homeland of 13 million Palestinians of all nationalities and faiths — Palestine.

Banna was a singer, composer, musical arranger and activist. She was immersed in Palestinian culture from an early age. Her mother is poet Zuhaira Sabbagh. Her formal musical education was undertaken at the Higher Music Conservatory in Moscow. That is where she met Ukrainian guitarist Leonid Alexeyenko, whom she married in 1991, a marriage that lasted 19 years. She raised their children alone from then on.

The training she had in Russia broadened her musical skills, which she skilfully applied to develop modern interpretations of traditional Palestinian songs. She was particularly successful in using her rapporteur of skills and talent to breathe new life into children’s songs and popular women’s melodies without divorcing them from their or her Palestinian roots.

Banna performed her music in a youthful, magical manner, which reached deep into the hearts of her audiences. Her music has been described as “haunting, emotional, at times bordering on kitsch.” She said her music was a means of cultural self-assertion.

She wrote and composed her own songs and added melodies to poetry, including works by Palestinian poets such as Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim.

Her message often focused on the suffering of Palestinians. She sang of the stolen homeland, of the children of the refugee camps, of the bleeding youth of Gaza on the way to long-awaited freedom.

Where she could, Banna performed concerts, such as in Jerusalem and the West Bank. For places she could not reach in person, such as Gaza, she made webcasts to reach her fans.

Banna was not only an ambassador for Palestinian music and song but also for traditional Palestinian dress, as she was always clad in embroidered Palestinian clothing and large, antique silver jewellery.

Her cultural legacy consists of at least ten albums, stories, songs, thousands of words, films she appeared in and jewellery she designed.

Banna will be remembered for being one of the first artists to call for a cultural boycott of Israel. She could not understand the hypocrisy of artists whose work encouraged resistance and called for liberation but who also agreed to perform in an occupying country.

She applied the occupation theme to her battle with cancer, describing it as the occupier in her body. She resisted it with all her power, despite losing her wild, curly hair. Some of the most iconic photographs were of her with a shaved head, which enunciated her big eyes and a smile that lit the image, defiant and strong.

In 2016, Banna lost the ability to sing after cancer ravaged her vocal chords. Surgery could not resurrect her beautiful voice but she could still speak. “It’s not the same thing but I will continue to sing to my people, as long as I breathe,” she said then.

I bet Rim Banna is looking down on us with her beaming smile, happy that, even in death, she strengthened the bond between Palestinians and their homeland as more of her compatriots scoured the internet for her songs, which they will learn and hum for years.

Farewell, Rim Banna. You are in a better place but we promise you that the young will not forget Palestine and your music will outlast us all to provide them and generations after that, if need be, inspiration to carry on the fight for freedom, justice and equality.

Bedouins’ endless suffering in Israel

First published by the Arab Weekly on 25/2/2018

How else does one explain replacing Bedouin villages with Jewish-only settlements?

Unabated onslaught. Bedouin children stand on the rubble of two classrooms destroyed by the Israeli Army in the village of Abu Nuwar in the West Bank, on February 4. (AP)

Descendants of the Bedouins who inhabited historic Palestine when Israel was created in 1948 live on either side of the Green Line that defines the internationally recognised border between Israel and a future Palestinian state.

Once nomads, tens of thousands of Bedouins live in villages across the desert region of southern Israel and in the West Bank. Those living in Israel have Israeli citizenship. Those in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have Palestinian Authority passports.

On February 4, Israeli forces closed off an area around a school for Bedouins in the West Bank village of Abu Nuwar and demolished two EU-funded classrooms in the school. A statement from Israel’s coordinator of government activities in the territories said: “The building was built illegally and without the necessary permits. In addition, the enforcement was approved by the Supreme Court.” This was the fifth time the school had been demolished since 2016.

Another area where whole communities are under threat of expulsion is Khan al-Ahmar where 12 communities are at risk. The area east of Jerusalem has about 1,400 residents. The communities are scattered on either side of the Jerusalem-Jericho road and on either side of Route 437, which connects the village of Hizma with the main road.

Importantly, the area is east of the industrial zone of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement, making it strategic for Israel’s expansionist policies and its plans to annex more Palestinian land.

Palestinian Bedouins have suffered severely at the hands of the occupying forces in the West Bank but the situation for Bedouins on the other side of the Green Line, where they settled in villages in the Negev, is no different. They, too, face discrimination and oppression, including property demolition, from the Israeli authorities.

Members of the Bedouin community in the Negev have been under threat of eviction from their villages for years. Their plight was sealed in 2013 when the Prawer-Begin Bill was approved by the Knesset by a 43-40 vote. The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah) called the plan “discriminatory” and said it would end with the mass expulsion of the Arab Bedouin community in the Naqab (Negev) in southern Israel.

It argued that, if fully implemented, “it will result in the destruction of 46 ‘unrecognised’ Arab Bedouin villages, the forced displacement of up to 70,000 Arab Bedouin citizens of Israel and the dispossession of their historical lands in the Naqab.”

Israel claimed the plan would provide the Bedouins with economic development and they would be better integrated into Israeli society.

The Prawer-Begin plan was halted when one of its architects, Benny Begin, announced that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had accepted his recommendation to stop progress on the legislation just before the end of 2013. Significantly, Begin admitted that, contrary to reports, he had never approached the Bedouins with the plan and thus did not have their approval on the matter. One could not imagine the fate of a Jewish Israeli community being decided without its consultation.

Two villages in particular gained prominence in recent years because of Israel’s actions against them. Al-Araqib attracted attention after Israel repeatedly destroyed it. Its inhabitants refused to leave and rebuilt it after each demolition. Last October, it was demolished for the 120th time.

The other village is Umm al-Hiran. Israel wants to expel the whole community from the village and build a settlement for Jews. At a protest against the demolitions in January 2017, Yaakub Abu al-Qian, a 50-year-old teacher, was killed by Israeli police while driving his car. Locals denied police claims that Qian had been shot after ploughing his car into police officers, saying his car accelerated only after he was shot and lost control. An Israeli police officer died in the incident.

It seems that by targeting individual villages for demolition, Israel is continuing its plan on a village-by-village basis. It is also continuing with its plan to populate the Negev with Jewish-only communities, including five new settlements that will be constructed on the sites of the “unrecognised” Bir Hadaj and Katama villages.

Whether as the state in which they have citizenship in the Negev (85,000) or as their illegal occupier in the West Bank (50,000), Israel treats Bedouins with contempt, making arbitrary decisions about them to suit Israel’s colonialist agenda. How else does one explain replacing Bedouin villages with Jewish-only settlements?

Israeli sovereignty doesn’t extend to Palestinian territories

First published by the Arab Weekly on 21/1/2018

Israel is using its control of entry points to the occupied Palestinian territories to punish human rights activists and organisations.

Fifty years after Israel took control of all of historic Palestine in the Six-Day War, it is taking a number of approaches to the sta­tus and laws that operate in what the rest of the world consid­ers illegally occupied Palestinian territory. Israel regards the area as “disputed” territory that it might consider returning — or more likely return part of — to secure peace with its neighbours.

In reality, Israel behaves as if it is sovereign over the whole of historic Palestine. It is important to note that UN Security Council Resolu­tion 2334 distinguished between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, thus rejecting Israeli sovereignty over them.

International law does not consider Israel as sovereign over the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, which the Israelis in 1967 annexed in the Six-Day War. In recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, US President Donald Trump referred to Israel as a “sovereign nation” that can “determine its own capital.” He is wrongly recognising Israel’s sovereignty over the whole city.

There is no way to access the ille­gally occupied Syrian Golan Heights except through Israel. That border has been effectively shut since the 1967 war, with the exception of some movement facilitated by the UN peacekeeping force for humani­tarian reasons. Even this move­ment came to a halt after violence erupted in Syria.

The Gaza Strip is accessed through the Beit Hanoun crossing, which Israel controls, or the Rafah crossing, which Egypt controls.

Entry to the West Bank and East Jerusalem is under Israel’s control, too. Palestinians with a Palestinian Authority (PA) passport enter and exit only via King Hussein Bridge, while Jordanian passport holders issued with Israeli visas by Israel’s Embassy in Amman can enter via the Sheikh Hussein Bridge further north.

Those carrying foreign passports, including European and US citizens wishing to visit either Israel or the occupied Palestinian territories, can enter through one of the bridges or through Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.

The situation for human rights activists who wish to visit the oc­cupied territories has changed con­siderably over the past few years. While some have been subjected to questioning about the purpose of their visit and who they were plan­ning to meet, most were allowed to enter, especially those who man­aged to convince Israeli authorities they were tourists visiting holy sites.

Faced with increased scrutiny of its policies and an escalating Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, however, Israel is using its control of entry points to the occupied Palestinian territories to punish human rights activists and organisations. It does this in addi­tion to pushing allies to implement anti-BDS laws, particularly in the United States, where some 20 states have such laws.

While Israel has long denied entry at will to activists and EU and US citizens of Palestinian heritage, it is now routinely denying entry to those working in organisations sup­porting BDS or individuals who are vocal in criticising it and supporting BDS. Israel has passed legislation amending its law of entry to specifi­cally deny access to such individu­als. This included Hugh Lanning, chairman of the UK-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign and myself. Shortly after this, it denied entry to Anwar Makhlouf, the head of the Palestinian community in Chile and three Swedish citizens, members of the World Council of Churches, over alleged BDS affiliations.

Israel went further in implement­ing its ban in July, ordering Lufthan­sa airline to deny boarding to five members of an interfaith delegation at Washington Dulles International Airport, including Jewish Rabbi Alissa Wise. Jewish Voice for Peace, an activist organisation opposed to the occupation, said this was the first time Israel had barred Jews, including a rabbi, entry to Israel be­cause of political positions. Israel’s law of return stipulates that all Jews have the right to move to Israel and become a citizen. The airline claimed: “We don’t know who these people are. We have no information as to why the Israeli government does not want them to enter. We simply have to abide by the rules and regulations of every country in which we operate.”

Israel has gone even further, using intelligence about those planning to travel to one of its entry points to ban them before attempting to board flights. On November 13, it announced it was barring seven EU officials from travelling with a 20-member delegation of European Parliament members, national lawmakers and mayors over “sup­port for Israel boycott” and for their aim to raise awareness on the plight of Palestinian prisoners, including political figure Marwan Barghouti. Israel’s Interior Ministry said the delegation had planned to visit Barghouti in Hadarim prison. It an­nounced its decision a week before the delegation was to visit.

The European Union — France in particular — might have been expected to stand up for its citizens but instead used the sovereignty issue as a reason not to challenge Israel’s decisions. A French Foreign Office minister said: “One can regret this Israeli decision but it remains nonetheless sovereign.”

This is rather bizarre as the European Union does not recog­nise Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Palestinian territories. It was left to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) to challenge the decision. The group’s executive director, Sharon Abraham-Weiss, said: “The interior minister is not authorised to serve as a commissar standing at the gate and deciding for the country’s citizens and for the residents of the occupied territories, who are dependent on Israeli border crossings, which positions are ap­propriate to be heard. Freedom of expression is not just the right to express oneself but also the right to be exposed to opinions, even opinions that outrage and infuriate the majority in Israel.”

The European Union must take a stand on the issue of sovereignty, especially as it relates to the oc­cupied Palestinian territories, to ensure non-Israelis can access them or consider taking their own measures, including denying entry to illegal Israeli settlers wishing to visit. Otherwise, the message to Israel is “Carry on; there are no red lines to cross.”

What’s next for Jerusalem?

First published in the Arab Weekly on 17/12/2017

Coming up with creative ideas to bring peace is laudable but rewarding Israel for its illegal policies can only reignite the conflict.

For Palestinians, De­cember 6 may well be remembered as “Black Wednesday,” the day when the United States defied international law and consensus on the status of Jerusalem and recognised it as the capital of Israel.

East Jerusalem is unanimously recognised by the international community as illegally occupied. This was reinforced in the dying days of the Obama administration in UN Security Council Resolution 2334.

There is no clear explana­tion why US President Donald Trump chose this time to make his announcement on Jerusalem and moving the US Embassy. It seems at odds with his Middle East advisers’ efforts to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

An objective assessment of the announcement’s effect can only conclude that it will not help their efforts to bring peace, unless, of course, translating Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s demands is the “ultimate deal” Trump wants to seal.

Trump claimed that he judged recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city “to be in the best interests of the United States of America and the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestin­ians. This is a long-overdue step to advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agree­ment.”

No independent analyst say this would contribute to peace-mak­ing. Neither do any significant world leaders.

Judging by the anger the deci­sion created around the world, Trump’s judgment is very lacking. In the final communique of its summit in Istanbul, the Organisa­tion of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held the US administration “fully responsible for any repercus­sions of it refusing to disavow this unlawful decision, taking it as a clear desertion by the US administration of its role as peace broker.”

The OIC dismissed the decision as “a gift to Israel for its continu­ous renouncement of agreements and blatant breach to internation­al legitimacy.”

The call was also for OIC members to impose political and economic restrictions on nations, officials, parliaments, companies and individuals “recognising Israeli annexation of Al-Quds Al-Sharif, or engaging in any form with measures aimed at perpetu­ating Israeli colonisation of the occupied Palestinian territories.”

The move has, however, em­boldened Netanyahu to make recognition of Jerusalem as Is­rael’s capital by the Palestinians a condition of the “ultimate deal.”

Trump justified his announce­ment in several ways.

First, he was implementing the decision of the US Congress in 1995, “the Jerusalem Embassy Act,” which mandated the US ad­ministration to move the embassy by 1999. However, US President Bill Clinton and Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama signed waivers delaying the implemen­tation of the act and Trump has continued the practice.

Second, Trump argued “Israel is a sovereign nation with the right like every other sovereign nation to determine its own capital. Acknowledging this as a fact is a necessary condition for achieving peace.” However, East Jerusalem is not part of Israel and therefore it cannot be claimed to be part of its capital. There is no question Israel has no sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

Third, Trump claimed “we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality.”

“Today, Jerusalem is the seat of the modern Israeli government,” Trump said.

He failed to understand that Israel was locating instruments of government in Jerusalem exactly to create a “reality” that it hoped would strengthen its claim to the city.

Acknowledging this reality is rewarding aggression and illegal­ity. It is a parallel policy to that of illegal settlement construction to create more acts on the ground.

Trump claimed that Jerusalem is the capital the Jewish people established in ancient times. That is not factual. What state has Jerusalem been a capital of for thousands of years?

Trump failed to accept that the Palestinian people have had a long and continuous presence in his­toric Palestine and Jerusalem and that if he truly wished to achieve peace he must acknowledge this.

It is telling that the White House said, a day after Trump’s Jerusa­lem announcement, that deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, a more moderate voice in his administration, was resigning.

Coming up with creative ideas to bring peace to the holy land is laudable but rewarding Israel for its illegal policies can only reignite the conflict. What is next for Jerusalem is a greater Israeli drive to push Palestinians out. Jerusalemites will do all they can to stay home.

A tale of two embassies and the ‘ultimate deal’

First published in the Arab Weekly on 3/12/2017

The continuing discussions on moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem raise serious doubts with the Palestinians.

 Risks ahead. The exterior of the US Embassy building in Tel Aviv. (AFP)

US Vice-President Mike Pence recently confirmed that “President Donald Trump is actively considering when and how to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusa­lem.”

Pence raised the contentious issue at a gathering to commemo­rate the 70th anniversary of UN Resolution 181, which called for the partition of British Mandate Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.

Pence said the Jewish people “deserve their eternal homeland” and spoke of their right “to be the masters of their own fate like all sovereign nations” but he made no reference to the Palestinian people or to their right to self-determination in their historic homeland.

The US vice-president chose this key anniversary in the conflict because it would imply recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as the Israelis attach great significance to such a move. While Israel sees Jerusalem as its “united eternal capital,” this is not recognised by any country, which explains the reason why all embassies are in Tel Aviv. Some countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and France, have consulates in East Jerusalem that conduct diplo­matic and consular services for the Palestinians.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump made an explicit promise regarding the embassy move. He said during a conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee: “We will move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jeru­salem.” However, when provided with the opportunity to put the proposed move into action last June, he decided not to. He did this by a waiver that delays for six months implementing the move.

Trump followed in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who signed similar waivers since both houses of Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 with over­whelming majorities.

Trump’s action disappointed the Israeli government. The White House explained that while “Pres­ident Donald J. Trump signed the waiver under the Jerusalem Embassy Act and delayed moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, no one should consider this step to be in any way a retreat from the president’s strong support for Israel and for the United States-Israel alliance.”

The continuing discussions on moving the US Embassy raise serious doubts with the Palestin­ians as to whether the US admin­istration is pursuing policies that lack the neutrality required of an honest broker. Trump’s team members are known for their support for Israel and its settle­ment enterprise, which calls into question their ability to formulate a peace deal that could meet the minimum Palestinian demand.

The status of another embassy or mission has raised alarm with the Palestinians, that of its own Palestine Liberation Organisa­tion (PLO) representative office in Washington. In recent weeks, the head of mission, Husam Zomlot, on whom the PLO has bestowed the title of ambassador to the United States, received a letter from the US State Department informing him the office would be shut down unless the PLO enters “direct, meaningful negotiations with Israel.”

However, it seems the real rea­son for the move was to extract from Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas a promise that he would not pursue Israeli leaders in the Interna­tional Criminal Court (ICC). The PA started the process that the Trump administration said would breach conditions imposed by Congress that prohibited the PLO from taking a case to the ICC.

Initially, the PLO reacted angrily, describing the move as “extortion” and accusing the Trump administration of bowing to pressure from the Israeli gov­ernment. It threatened to cut off communication with the Trump administration. However, Abbas later pledged not to take steps to prosecute Israeli officials in inter­national courts. It appears that this led to the Americans renew­ing the licence for the PLO office on condition the PA begin uncon­ditional talks with Israel and does not take steps to prosecute Israeli officials in international courts.

It can be argued that the US ad­ministration is delaying the move of its embassy in Israel to Jerusa­lem to pressure Israel to engage in the peace process and equally the threat to close the Palestinian office in Washington to pressure the Palestinians to do the same in pursuit of the “ultimate deal.”

Israel will pay no price for the delay, however, while the Pal­estinians will pay a heavy price to keep their Washington office open: It will cost them their trump card of being able to pur­sue Israeli leaders in the ICC.