Monday’s scheduled move of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has the “potential to spark a new round of violence” by Palestinians and will be seen five years from now as a decision that puts the “last nail in the [Israeli-Palestinian] peace process,” according to Martin Indyk, who served twice as the American ambassador to Israel.
In a conference call with reporters, Indyk, a Distinguished Fellow in International Diplomacy in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., pointed out that although Congress in 1995 passed a bill authorizing the move, it also allowed presidents to delay it by signing a waiver for national security reasons. Every president except Donald Trump signed such a waiver in deference to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“It did not create much backlash, but it has the potential to spark a new round of violence.”
Trump initially said the embassy move would not take place for five years until a new embassy could be built “to underscore that it was not intended to influence negotiations about Jerusalem if final status negotiations began,” Indyk observed.
[The Palestinians want those negotiations to lead to the creation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.]
But at the suggestion of David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, the Trump administration decided to convert an existing building in Jerusalem into the American Embassy, permitting the move to be made almost immediately and eliminating the cost of a new building.
Indyk noted that although the embassy move was an “issue for American politics and a majority of Jewish Israelis would welcome that their capital be recognized … it was not a priority for [Jewish Israelis] and not a priority if it results in an explosion or terrorist acts.”
“It comes at a time of high tension in the region,” he added. “It did not create much backlash, but it has the potential to spark a new round of violence. … Five years from now, we will look back and see that this decision represented the last nail in the peace process.”
Khaled Elgindy, a fellow in Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy who was on the call with others from the center, agreed, saying the “announcement of the embassy move marked the effective end of the old peace process.” He said it would now “be very hard if not impossible for any Palestinian leadership to return to an American-led peace process. Jerusalem is a core issue for both sides. The Palestinians have said a state without Jerusalem as their capital is not a state worth having.”
He added that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the U.S. had disqualified itself as a mediator in peace talks, and noted that the Trump administration has “not articulated” calls for an “end to the Israeli occupation and for full sovereignty for a Palestinian state.”
“I’m not sure there is a peace process to return to,” Elgindy said.
But Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the center, disagreed, saying she does not believe the embassy move “precludes a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem.”
Indyk noted that a “future president, even President Trump,” could make “a statement about the final status of Jerusalem.”
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Trump has already said “the Israelis have to give something,” pointed out Natan Sachs, the center’s director.
He too talked about the tensions in Israel, noting that the embassy move comes just days after Iran attacked Israel from Syria, firing 20 rockets at Israeli military bases on the Golan Heights in northern Israel during the pre-dawn hours of May 10. The Israeli Air Force responded, reportedly firing 70 rockets at dozens of Iranian targets in Syria. All but four of the Iranian rockets — fired by the Quds Force, a special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards — fell in Syrian territory. The four that reached Israel were intercepted and destroyed by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Israel sustained no injuries and only minimal damage.
Indyk noted that a day after the embassy move the Palestinians have threatened to march on the fence separating Israel from the Gaza Strip. For the past six weeks there have been similar Palestinian marches on the fence that have resulted in a reported 48 Palestinian deaths from Israeli troops firing live ammunition to stop them. When the demonstrations first started, they attracted as many as 40,000 Palestinians. Last week, only 7,000 participated.
“They have never spilled over into the West Bank,” Indyk said. “I always felt that if the Palestinians could mount 100,000 marching on a settlement in the West Bank, you could have a difficult situation. … I question whether the Palestinians are prepared to mobilize those numbers.”
Wittes said she would not be “surprised if the American delegation [attending the embassy opening] high tails it out of town [at the end of the ceremonies] so that if anything happens they would not be in town for it. There is a lot of tinder and it does not take much of a spark.”
Asked if a future president could undo the move and relocate the American Embassy to Tel Aviv, Shibley Telhami, a nonresident senior fellow at the center, said it is “hard to see politically how it could be done because Congress supports it. What you could see is some walking back of certain interpretations of it,” such as a presidential declaration of support for east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.