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Trump Jerusalem decision leaves Arab allies in bind

© AFP/File / by Aziz EL MASSASSI | Countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which are close to Trump or financially dependent on his country's aid, have been placed in a delicate position by his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital

WASHINGTON (AFP) - 

Arab allies of the United States have found themselves trapped uncomfortably between their close ties to Washington and popular ire after President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which are close to Trump or financially dependent on his country's aid, have been placed in a delicate position by the controversial move.

While there have been words of condemnation -- and widespread anger among the public -- it seems Washington's Arab friends in the Middle East are unlikely to push harder or risk altering their policies towards the US.

"The decision is a serious embarrassment for the regimes allied with Washington, especially as it is unlikely that they will go further in their opposition to the American decision," said Oraib al-Rantawi, director for the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman.

Trump's move is a particularly bitter blow for Jordan, which has custodianship of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, and signed a peace deal with Israel in 1994.

Amman, a military ally which has enjoyed close ties to the US for decades, has so far limited its response to the decision by calling it a "violation of international law."

Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam's two holiest places of Mecca and Medina, cannot be seen to remain indifferent on the fate of Jerusalem, which contains the religion's third holiest site, and decried Trump's move as "unjustified and irresponsible".

Riyadh wants to see a peace deal with Israel and closer ties in the face of the shared threat from regional rival Iran, but not at any price, said Giorgio Cafiero, who heads the Washington-based risk management consultancy Gulf State Analytics.

The Saudis "are keen to avoid any action, or inaction, on the question of Palestine that gives the Iranian regime more fuel to its narrative that it is Tehran and not Riyadh that is most committed" towards Jerusalem, he said.

-No 'significant changes'-

Behind the scenes, Saudi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has excellent relations with Trump's son-in-law and aide Jared Kushner, in charge of a new push to get an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, said Middle East expert James Dorsey with the University of Wurzburg.

"In this scenario Saudi Arabia would ensure Arab backing for a peace plan put forward by Mr Kushner," he wrote.

Mohamed Kamel al-Sayid, a political science professor in Cairo University, insisted that "in official terms, do not expect significant changes" in ties between Washington and its regional Arab allies.

However, the decision by Trump will fuel "hatred of American policy in the region," he added.

In Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace deal with Israel in 1979, Israel remains deeply unpopular.

Despite Egypt seeing itself as a key regional player with a responsibility for the Palestinians across its border, the authorities under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will not welcome protests after cracking down on dissent.

The country has seen two presidents toppled in the past seven years and there is little appetite left for any further turmoil.

Egypt also relies heavily on $1.3 billion in US military aid, and after a spell of rocky relations with Washington under Barack Obama, has no desire to antagonise Trump.

While the muted response by its Arab allies may go down well with the White House, the refusal to come out strongly against the US could backfire, observers warn.

Domestic opposition, and in particular Islamist groups, that have long used the Palestinian cause to denounce what they see as weakness by their own governments could see their own stock rise.

by Aziz EL MASSASSI

© 2017 AFP