Campaigning in 2016, 70-year-old President Donald Trump advocated moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that brought widespread condemnation in the Arab world. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the White House continues to weigh its options about such a move but only in the context of what would advance the elusive Mideast peace process. When it comes to Mideast peace, there’s no magic bullet only tough positions between Israel and Palestinian factions, dividing the PLO’s West Bank and East Jerusalem with Hamas’s Gaza Strip. Hamas presented a new Charter May 1, accepting a Palestinian state in the pre-1967 Six Day War borders. Hamas stated it’s not at war with the Jews only Zionists currently occupying what they claim is Palestinian territory. Since the 1967 Six Day War, Palestinians claim land once owned by Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
In his last act before retiring Palestinian leader-in-exile, Khalid Meshaal stated in Doha, Qatar that he accepted a Palestinian state based the pre-1967 borders. Transferring power to former Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh, Meshaal offered nothing knew with Hamas other than backing a new state in the pre-1967 War borders. Meshaal and Haniyeh know that’s impossible because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t surrender the strategic Golan Heights high-ground buffer zone. Agreeing in principle with a Palestinian state on some of the pre-1967 territory, Netanyahu has no intention of returning all of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights. Torn between Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Hamas and the PLO are still warring factions unable to reconcile differences. Trump finds himself without a true peace partner with Palestinians split between the PLO and Hamas.
Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem does nothing to advance a Mideast peace. While it’s certainly the U.S. call where it keeps its embassy, U.S. Israeli Amb. David Friedman pushes Tillerson to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. “The president is being very careful to understand how such as decision would impact the peace process,” Tillerson told NBC News’s “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd. Tillerson acknowledged that he and Trump would weigh “whether Israel view it as helpful to the peace initiative or perhaps a distraction,” giving the first signs that the White House has cooled to the idea. There’s nothing other that bad faith to Palestinians that a move would accomplish, making the move less likely. Friedman favors the move because he doesn’t believe Palestinians should have any say of what land Israel gives back, since they won the land as spoils of the 1967 War.
Whatever happens with Mideast peace talks, East Jerusalem’s primary Arab sector would like to serve as the capital to a future Palestinian state. Once Israel gives up East Jerusalem in final status talks, then it would be appropriate for the U.S. to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem. Before that can happen, Palestinians have a lot of work to do to reconcile the split between Hamas and the PLO. Stockpiling rockets and digging more tunnels, Hamas doesn’t look any closer to joining the PLO to negotiate a two-state solution. U.S. officials can’t negotiate a peace deal with 82-year-old PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas without Gaza’s 54-year-old militant Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar joining the peace process. Dealing only with Abbas can’t get a peace deal except in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson knows Palestinians must come under one leadership.
Talk of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem throws gasoline on a simmering Mideast peace. U.S. officials have no problem conducing U.S. diplomacy out of Tel Aviv for the foreseeable future. Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem reinforces the idea that Israel has a right to consider Jerusalem as its capital, regardless of Palestinian objections. No final status agreement would cede all Jerusalem to Palestinians, only parts of East Jerusalem. Considered the third holiest spot in Sunni Islam behind Saudi Arabia’s Mecca and Medina, the al-Aqsa Mosque in Haram ash-Sharif has been a rallying cry for Palestinians. When the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited what Jews call Temple Mount in 2015 it caused Arab riots. Nestled in the Old City together with the Old Temple’s Wailing Wall, Jews and Arabs consider the area the most holy sites in their respective religions.
If Trump and Tillerson are serious about peace between Israelis and Palestinians, they need to work first toward unifying the PLO and Hamas. As it stands today, the U.S. has no peace partner to negotiate a Mideast peace. PLO’s Abbas does not speak for Hamas, making peace negotiations impossible. While it’s true that Netanyahu and Zionists groups would like to see the embassy in Jerusalem, it does nothing to advance the peace process. U.S. Amb. David Friedman continues to work out of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, not the consulate in Jerusalem. Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem would only antagonize radial groups, not help heal the rift between the PLO and Hamas. “Israel’s position has been stated many times to the American government and to the world,” said Netanyahu, urging the move to Jerusalem but knowing it would hinder the peace process.