The frenzied debate about whether President Donald Trump will fulfil his campaign promise to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem has been becalmed momentarily. The king of Jordan has pitched in with a grave warning, as have other Arab and Muslim leaders. In campaign mode Trump left no doubt that he, unlike his predecessors, would move the embassy. In office, it was “too early” for him to comment publicly.
A stay of execution perhaps, but under the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, when the US officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the president has to sign a waiver every six months if he deems that the move might harm US national interests. Until now, every one has done so. The deadline for the next waiver is June 1, and at this moment no one knows what Trump will do.
He has already shown an intense dislike for appearing to go back on pledges. On the other hand, to advance any chance of peace, Trump may agree to the waiver. This has been the argument that has won over his predecessors for decades. As Israeli expert on Jerusalem Danny Seidemann puts it, “it would be the death certificate” for America’s role as a mediator.
All this is relevant as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu starts his grand tour of key allies in the UK, the US and Australia. He will be out to confirm a green light for ambitious plans to affect the character of Jerusalem and physically demolish any feint hope of a viable Palestinian state.
No doubt he will wish to sell his concept of a Palestinian state minus, essentially the status quo of 166 Palestinian West Bank entities getting some form of semi-autonomy under Israeli tutelage.
The international community should start penalyzing Israel for so ruthlessly bulldozing its way through international law. Enough of the polite bromides that pass for press releases and routine recycled pleas to stop that decorate EU websites.
Yet the real and immediate threat to Jerusalem as a city of three faiths and two peoples lies far more with settlements and home demolitions, which escalated throughout 2016 and even more so in the opening month of this year.
Such steps aim to change for good the physical nature of the city and the demographics on the ground, while ratcheting up the pressures on already overcrowded Palestinian neighborhoods that suffer from a major lack of investment. Settler numbers are adding up to such an extent that it is hard to imagine any Israeli government removing them, least of all in Jerusalem.
Trump’s inauguration has ushered in an unprecedented settlement building fest, not least in Jerusalem. Netanyahu boldly announced on Jan. 22 that all restrictions on building in East Jerusalem, imposed due to international pressure, were lifted. International reaction was mild at best. On the same day, 560 settlement units were announced.
More dangerous are plans launched by Education Minister Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home party to pass legislation to annex the mega-settlement of Ma’ale Adumim and apply Israeli law there. Israel’s Cabinet decided to defer a decision until after Netanyahu meets Trump on Feb. 15.
As Bennet knows, if in addition Ma’ale Adumim is expanded by implementing the E1 plan, it would both split the West Bank in two and cut Jerusalem off from any future Palestinian state. It would be a link in a concrete necklace of settlements from Givat Zeev in the north all the way round to Gilo in the south.
E1 is one of several mega-settlement plans long in the pipeline, designed above all to smash Palestinian dreams of a capital in Jerusalem. To the south is Givat Hamatos, which if completed would sever Jerusalem from Bethlehem and the rest of the southern part of the West Bank. As with E1 the plans are approved, and at some point tenders will be issued. All it takes is a green light from the US.
Watch out also for further pushes on those settlement enterprises inside Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem. These take place in three main areas: The Old City, Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. For those pyromaniacs on the Israeli right who wish to stir up tensions, pushing for settler takeovers of Palestinian properties or for their demolition is a tried and tested means to inflame and spark violence.
As serious as the embassy issue is, in many ways it is an issue the Palestinians lost over 20 years ago. The settlement crisis is one that heralds total national defeat, the death of any future Palestinian state.
To save Jerusalem, the international community should start for the first time penalyzing Israel for so ruthlessly bulldozing its way through international law. Enough of the polite bromides that pass for press releases and routine recycled pleas to stop that decorate EU websites. Settlements are illegal, and it is time that those building them feel the heat.
• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.