Not for the first time the pyromaniacs are ruling the roost in Palestine. Barely has the dust settled and outrage calmed after last December’s decision of President Trump to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem, than the new embassy is being opened. To maximise the outrage, this is being done deliberately on 14 May, the anniversary of Israel declaring its independence, and for Palestinians the day before the 70th anniversary of the start of the Nakba or tragedy.
President Trump does not do subtlety and loves big bold statements. This is one of his biggest, a poke in both eyes to Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims alike. The only thing that could have inflamed tensions more would have been the presence of the president himself, but the Trump family is represented by Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner.
The US position that somehow this decision promotes an environment for peace sounds like a lame sketch from some satirical comedy show. US Ambassador David Friedman claims, “We are convinced this decision creates a platform and an opportunity to promote a peace process based on realities, not fantasies. We're sure it will create greater stability in the long run." He urges people to get “on board”, but who wants to make a blind leap on to a sinking ship? Delusional is not quite enough to describe this, but then again Friedman’s views are more in tune with the more extreme Israeli settler ideology than even mainstream Israeli opinion.
Basking in all of this is Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, determined to ensure every Israeli Jew is reminded that it was he who procured this historic and symbolic victory at zero cost to Israel with no concessions made to the Palestinians. Every day he can divert attention from the seemingly inexorable drive to charge him for corruption.
But left fuming in Ramallah is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, perhaps the biggest victim of this diplomatic vandalism. His leadership too looks like it is on its last legs. His recent intemperate and anti-Jewish outbursts, for which he eventually apologised, reveal a man who knows that all the years he spent negotiating and advocating a deal with Israel, everything he once stood for, is being smashed in front of him. He is a spent force, increasingly out of touch with his own people, isolated regionally and totally bereft of any strategy to handle the situation.
Also marginalised is the European Union. As with the Iran nuclear deal, EU powers were unable to convince Trump of the benefits of restraint and caution. All but a few EU states have boycotted the opening event. It seems Hungary and the Czech Republic may break ranks. The EU is at least steadfastly maintaining its position of not recognising any state’s sovereignty in Jerusalem and not moving their embassies. At best the EU role is to try to ensure international law and norms still have a role in the conflict.
Yet for all this, the embassy opening is still a distraction. Symbolically it matters. It sends out all the wrong signals, rewarding Israeli intransigence and illegal actions in the city. But the embassy move is way down the list of the major threats to Palestinians in the city. These Palestinians were completely and utterly ignored in Trump’s December speech announcing the decision, as if the 332,000 Palestinians living in this divided city did not exist and did not have any rights. The fact that the US no longer even accepts there is an occupation let alone that East Jerusalem itself is occupied, is legally disastrous.
The real danger is that Israel sees this as a green light for its next illegal moves. These include progressing with the Jerusalem annexation bill which would see large settlement blocs annexed to the city whilst legally at least ejecting certain Palestinian communities, further altering the demographic makeup of the city. The huge E1 settlement plan, so long opposed by successive US administrations, may also be implemented. This will mean the forcible transfer of thousands of Palestinian Bedouin, yet another war crime to add to the list. E1 is just one of the many settlement projects that would prevent any chance of a viable contiguous Palestinian state.
Perhaps more worryingly, all this presents Netanyahu with a terrific opportunity to enjoy a favourable swansong to his long premiership killing off the chance of such a viable Palestinian state. He may not want any successor to claim credit for any such move, so it would not be a surprise to see him accelerate these plans, all with full White House backing.
Palestinians will be left to march, protest and be fired upon by Israeli snipers as they have been every Friday in Gaza since 30 March. It is hard to think of a lower point in their national struggle for freedom and independence.