Jerusalem move could doom US Mideast peace efforts: analysts


Washington (AFP)

President Donald Trump's decision to break with decades of US policy and recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital could complicate the already daunting effort by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to hammer out a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, analysts say.

Defying warnings from Arab nations and appeals from European allies, Trump announced the Jerusalem move at the White House on Wednesday, saying it was a "long-overdue step to advance the peace process."

But Middle East analysts said it may have the opposite effect.

"Why now?" asked Ilan Goldenberg, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

"He's undermining his own peace efforts," Goldenberg said. "It makes very little sense to make it at this moment.

"The best case scenario is that it's just going to blow up Trump's peace efforts," he said. "The worst case scenario is you also have widespread protests, major riots."

Goldenberg said the move puts Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, who champions East Jerusalem as the capital of an eventual Palestinian state, and other Arab leaders in a tough position.

"It's hard to imagine Abbas or any of the Arab leaders being able to engage politically," he said.

Within minutes of Trump's announcement Abbas called it "deplorable and unacceptable" and said the United States can no longer play the role of peace broker.

- 'Ultimate deal' -

Trump, who prides himself as a negotiator, has said on several occasions that he is determined to work toward a Middle East peace settlement, what he has called the "ultimate deal."

He stressed Wednesday that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital in no way negates his "strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement."

"We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians," he said.

Goldenberg said if Trump was really serious about promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace he would have made the status of Jerusalem part of a global peace package.

But Trump indicated Wednesday that reaching a final resolution of the thorny question of Jerusalem would be up to the parties themselves.

"We are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders," he said.

"Those questions are up to the parties involved."

Kushner, Trump's 36-year-old son-in-law, has been quietly working on the Israeli-Palestinian dossier for months but diplomatic sources said they do not expect any peace plan to be revealed until, at best, early 2018.

For Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council, Trump's Jerusalem move is "a confirmation that (the peace process) has always been an illusion."

"Kushner's peace efforts are a kind of fig leaf to give the Saudis so they could justify working more with Israel against Iran," Slavin said.

Since taking office, Trump and Kushner have been cultivating a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and particularly the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, as an ally against mutual foe Iran.

But Slavin warned that the Jerusalem move could have unintended consequences.

"It's going to strengthen Iran, which this collaboration with Saudi Arabia is supposed to undermine," she said.

"Iran will portray itself once again as the true champion of the Palestinian cause while all the Arabs are a bunch of hypocrites," Slavin added.

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was more sanguine.

Arab governments would have to "show concern" over the Jerusalem move, he said, "for reasons of public opinion."

"(But) it will not change the fundamentals of their relationship with Israel," he said. "Saudis and Emiratis will continue to view Israel as an ally against Iran."

A diplomat with knowledge of the region also said he did not think the Jerusalem move would prove to be too unsettling.

"There are tectonic changes in the region," said the diplomat who requested anonymity. "It's a new Middle East."

Kushner also appeared undeterred in a rare public appearance on Sunday, seeing an opportunity for peace if the Sunni Arab countries of the region align with Israel in opposition to Shiite Iran.

"They look at the regional threats and I think that they see Israel, who is traditionally their foe, is a much more natural ally to them than it was 20 years ago," Kushner said.