As if the Middle East wasn’t already experiencing enough turmoil. Weeks after a dramatic purge in Saudi Arabia and days after the killing of Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh at the hands of Iran-aligned Houthi militiamen, US President Donald Trump decided to push ahead with a highly controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Trump’s move not only unravelled longstanding US policy and ruptured international consensus, it also threatens to trigger all sorts of consequences beyond the region.
Considered sacred by Jews, Christians and Muslims, Jerusalem is both storied and divided. Palestinians envision the eastern part of the city – annexed by Israel in 1967 – as the capital of any future Palestinian state, while Israelis see Jerusalem as their own capital. The city is home to Israel’s president, parliament and most government ministries. Until now, the US – like most countries, including Ireland – has kept its embassy in Tel Aviv, pending a final peace agreement that would determine Jerusalem’s status.
Trump’s unilateral recognition of Israel’s claim to the city is one of the most serious setbacks ever to efforts to forge a sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which would allow for Palestinian aspirations for an independent state. The move continues to draw denunciations from leaders across the Middle East – including close US allies – and Europe, but also threatens to unleash violence as protests gain ground not just across the Middle East but also in Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia and Pakistan.
Jerusalem – or Al-Quds, as it is known in Arabic – occupies a particular place in the Muslim imagination due to its role in Islamic history. This has, in recent decades, overlapped with pro-Palestinian sentiment to produce a powerful rallying cry used by activists from Cairo to Jakarta and Lahore to Khartoum and Istanbul. Such is the resonance of the name Al-Quds, there are media outlets and streets plus numerous restaurants and cafés named after it across the Middle East and beyond. The elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is called the Quds Force and militant groups in other countries have also appropriated iterations of the name.
In the six years that have followed the series of uprisings and revolutions of 2011 that some dubbed the Arab Spring, the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process – once the most reported story in the region – disappeared from world headlines. With wars raging in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, and the rise of Isil, plus increasingly fierce regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Israeli-Palestinian question faded into the background even if Arab leaders continued to use it as a way to appeal to popular sentiment.
Trump’s high-risk move comes as Palestinians mark the 30th anniversary this month of the start of the first intifada, an uprising against Israeli occupation that began in Gaza and rapidly spread to the West Bank, resulting in hundreds of deaths, most of them Palestinian. The leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniya, has called for a new intifada in response to Trump’s declaration.
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Protests took place across the Middle East – but also as far afield as Indonesia and Malaysia – after Friday prayers yesterday. In the Lebanon the day before, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, called on Arabs and Muslims to respond any way they could.
US allies in the region also reacted negatively. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman called the move “a dangerous step likely to inflame the passions of Muslims around the world”. Egypt’s President Sisi deplored Trump’s decision while King Abdullah II of Jordan, another American ally which is home to a large Palestinian population, said it would have “dangerous repercussions on the stability and security of the region”. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey called Jerusalem “a red line for Muslims” and threatened to cut off relations with Israel.
American institutions and organisations in the region are braced for possible violent fallout. The State Department restricted travel for US government employees in Jerusalem and the West Bank, warning American citizens to avoid crowded areas. In the Jordanian capital Amman, protesters gathered near the fortress-like US embassy.
Meanwhile in Israel, the mood was triumphant, with government ministers declaring a diplomatic victory even as the UN Security Council organised an emergency meeting. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed Trump’s decision as “historic” and went on to compare the US president to Lord Balfour, whose eponymous declaration as British foreign secretary 100 years ago paved the way for the creation of Israel.
Now the question is how the ailing Israeli-Palestinian peace process can recover from this week’s blow. Few are hopeful, many are fearful.