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.