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Trump pleasing his base could spark a firestorm in the Middle East

Speculation that Trump will make a major announcement on Jerusalem Wednesday has already sparked a chorus of warnings from U.S. officials and foreign allies that any changes to the status quo will have dramatic consequences in the region.

by Tim Hume
Dec 5 2017, 2:25am

Dealmaker Donald Trump has claimed he could seal the “toughest deal of all” brokering a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

But a possible move to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital threatens to unnecessarily inflame regional tensions and derail White House peace efforts before they even start, analysts and officials warn.

Speculation that Trump will make a major announcement on Jerusalem Wednesday has already sparked a chorus of warnings from U.S. officials and foreign allies that any changes to the status quo will have dramatic consequences in the region.

The State Department has reportedly sent a classified memo to U.S. embassies worldwide warning them to heighten security ahead of Trump’s expected comments.

“If the superpower decides to give the neocons in the U.S. and in Israel legitimacy in their claim that Jerusalem is Israel’s rightful capital, then this will not only incite riots in Palestine but also in the wider Arab and Muslim world,” Andreas Krieg, a Middle East expert at King’s College London, told VICE News.

Trump is expected to outline his position on Jerusalem during a speech at the National Defense University Wednesday. Exactly what that position will be is not yet clear. But reports suggest it could involve relocating the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a Trump campaign pledge – or even making a declaration that Washington considers Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move that would have seismic repercussions across the region.

The status of Jerusalem, home to sites holy in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is claimed by both sides – the Palestinians claiming the east of the city as their future capital, and the Israelis claiming the city as their indivisible capital, although their sovereignty over the city is not recognized internationally. All countries, including the U.S., maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv instead.

But a shift in this position appears to be in the works after Trump missed a deadline to sign a waiver that preserves the status quo.

Currently, a 1995 U.S. law stipulates that the U.S. embassy must be relocated to Jerusalem – an important symbolic recognition of Israeli claims over the disputed city – unless a waiver is signed by the president stating that it’s not in the national security interest to do so. Trump signed such a waiver in June, but Monday’s deadline passed without a waiver being signed.

“It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when” the embassy is moved, in keeping with Trump’s promises on the campaign trail, White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley told reporters Monday. Other reports suggest the waiver would be signed, but the U.S. would also declare it considered Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital.

The latter, especially, would have explosive consequences, as governments from Saudi Arabia to France to Jordan have cautioned. The Palestinian leadership has said it will cease its contacts with the U.S. if it proceeds, with President Mahmoud Abbas saying such a move would “destroy the peace process.”

Arab League chief Abul Gheit has said such a move would “nourish fanaticism and violence,” and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi it would “trigger anger across the Arab and Muslim world, fuel tension and jeopardize peace efforts.”

U.S. officials are also nervous. “The impending Jerusalem announcement has me very worried about the possibility of violent responses that could affect embassies,” an unnamed State Department official told Politico.

Krieg said that any move to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was likely to result in violence. “Whenever free access to Jerusalem is in jeopardy Palestinians take matters in their own hands,” he said. “Even when the Palestinian Authority makes calls against violence, the Arab population of East Jerusalem starts protests – protests that with Israeli police intervention usually turn violent.”

He said the issue was so touchy across the Muslim and Arab world because legitimizing Jerusalem as the Jewish capital “would mean that there is no hope any more” for East Jerusalem one day becoming part of a Palestinian state.

He said that such a move on Trump’s part would be purely an appeal to his neocon support base – and he hoped that senior officials would be able to influence Trump not to take such a drastic, and unnecessary step.

“Trump wants to be the champion of the Judeo-Christian conservatives in the U.S. in the hope that it will buy him long-term support,” he said. “The hope is that State Department, Defense Department and intelligence services will pressure the White House to reconsider this move. The ‘deep state’ in the U.S. knows about the risks.”