Trump Already Looms Large Over Some of the Hottest Israeli-Palestinian Issues

  • Israel prepares for possible violence on embassy announcement
  • Ministers see U.S. east Jerusalem building opposition lifted

A picture taken on Jan. 20, 2017, shows the exterior of the U.S. Embassy building in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, coinciding with the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the U.S.

Photographer: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump is already looming large over some of the most contentious issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians, emboldening some Israeli officials to take moves that threaten to reignite violence and make the prospect of reviving peace efforts ever more dim.

Two days after his inauguration, the Jerusalem municipality approved delayed plans to build hundreds of apartments in the eastern sector of the city that Palestinians claim for a future capital. Mayor Nir Barkat, echoing the relief of many Israeli officials, declared the dawn of a “new era” following eight years of “pressure from the Obama administration” to freeze settlement building it saw as hindering Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Israel has also embraced Trump’s declared plan to relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a move other presidents have shied from. And sensing he is more amenable to settlement construction than his predecessors, some ministers are promoting legislation to annex part of the West Bank after 50 years of occupation.

How Israel -- and the world -- see settlements

The plans to relocate the embassy and accelerate construction on contested land have further sapped Palestinian hopes for a state, deepening frustrations that in the past have exploded into armed conflict with Israel. Palestinian leaders are warning that this will spell the end of the two-state solution, and Israeli media have reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed security officials to prepare to contain violence.

‘All the Elements’

“I don’t want to say within a week or two there will be a full-fledged uprising,” said Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service and a prominent advocate of peacemaking. “But there are all the elements here that show there can be an outbreak of violence.”

Barkat downplayed the prospect of violence in an interview in which he endorsed both the embassy move and expanded construction in areas of the city Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. “I stick to my guns,” he said. “I do the right thing. I strongly recommend the U.S. administration not to be afraid of anything and just do the right thing.”

Trump invited Netanyahu to Washington for a visit next month and the White House issued no response to the housing approval. White House spokesman Sean Spicer, meanwhile, signaled that an announcement on moving the embassy wasn’t forthcoming, saying, “We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject.”

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Palestinians see a relocation of the embassy as cementing Israel’s grip on the entire city. The Israeli government, still smarting over the recent censure of its settlement building at the United Nations, also sees an embassy move as international recognition of its sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem. Congress approved moving the embassy in 1995 but no administration ever carried it out for fear of the consequences.

Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin sees the planned relocation as indication of a new U.S. openness to building homes for Jews in east Jerusalem.

“If the U.S. moves its embassy to Jerusalem, what is it saying? That it recognizes Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, and if it recognizes Israeli sovereignty, it can’t complain afterward about construction,” Elkin said. Two major building projects totaling 3,000 apartments could get under way in east Jerusalem this year, he said.

Understanding the Sour-Sweet U.S.-Israel Relationship

Netanyahu, facing political pressure from pro-settler rival Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, told ministers he would lift all restrictions in East Jerusalem and the entire West Bank.

Palestinians denounced the newest housing approval, which included dozens of homes for Arabs, and President Mahmoud Abbas urged Trump to reconsider the embassy move, saying it could have a “disastrous” impact on the peace process, regional stability and security. Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its chief negotiator, said the PLO would withdraw its recognition of Israel and nullify all security and economic agreements with Israel if the relocation went ahead. The sides haven’t held peace talks since for more than two years.

Grim Precedent

In the absence of negotiations, more than half of Palestinians support a return to an armed uprising, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. The December poll of 1,270 people had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Acts perceived by Palestinians as displays of Israeli sovereignty in the city have led to violence in the past. Netanyahu’s opening of a tunnel network near the Jerusalem shrine known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount in 1996 sparked clashes that left dozens of people dead, most of them Palestinians. Ariel Sharon’s ascent to the site in 2000 unleashed a cascade of violence that evolved into a four-year Palestinian uprising.

Netanyahu said he will be meeting next month with Trump to coordinate a “common vision.” A ministerial committee on Sunday deferred its vote on a bill proposing the annexation of the large Maaleh Adumim settlement outside Jerusalem.

Palestinian anger over Trump’s pro-Israel policies could threaten American interests in the region, said Jehad Harb, an analyst and researcher at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. “We will see certain radical groups taking advantage of this and conducting attacks against the American administration and its embassies,” he said.

— With assistance by Fadwa Hodali

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