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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Jerusalem embassy move will boost peace process, US officials say

Experts worry it will undermine the US role and corner Mahmoud Abbas

A man walks next to a road sign directing to the US embassy, in the area of the US consulate in Jerusalem, May 7, 2018. Reuters
A man walks next to a road sign directing to the US embassy, in the area of the US consulate in Jerusalem, May 7, 2018. Reuters

The stage is set for the US to formally open its embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, a controversial decision but one that US officials said will help bring “peace and stability to the region”.

In a briefing with reporters on Friday, a US official speaking on condition of anonymity said Washington is expecting a crowd of 800 people including “a healthy number from Congress”.

US President Donald Trump will not travel to Jerusalem but his peace process team including Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt will. Also attending are the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, US treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin, deputy secretary of state John Sullivan and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman.

“We are very excited for the opening of the embassy on Monday afternoon,” one US official said, describing it as “a historic achievement” for the Trump administration and one that is happening way ahead of the anticipated schedule. The decision to move the embassy was announced by Mr Trump last December, and while US officials then expected the actual move to take at least three years, the White House set the date in February for a move on May 14.

Fifty staffers are expected to be at the new embassy, and US officials - despite deep Palestinian resentment about the move - are saying that it will “create a platform to move forward with the peace process on basis of realities [on the ground]”.

The officials pointed to a changed regional dynamic, which is illustrated by a tweet by the Bahraini foreign minister in support of Israel’s actions in Syria against Iranian military presence.

Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa tweeted on Thursday: “As long as Iran is disrupting the regional status quo and is encroaching on countries with its forces and missiles, then any country in the region, including Israel, has the right to defend itself and destroy the origin of the threat.”

“This is enormously important, a sea change,” a US official said. The official credited Mr Trump “in bringing the region together”.

As far as protests are concerned, US officials said that Israeli security is assessing the situation minute by minute. They also dismissed the idea that the absence of Mr Trump and Nikki Haley, US representative at the UN, from the event is for security reasons, attributing it instead to scheduling.

But while US officials stressed that the move and possible addition of staff at the embassy later will help to make progress on the peace process, some experts were more sceptical.

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Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to the Palestinian leadership said: “The opening of the embassy in Jerusalem, regardless [of whether] unrest or violence happens, will formally mark the end of an American-led peace process, after a quarter century on that process.”

He told The National that “there is no way for a Palestinian leadership to go back to a US-led process, they have said this many times”. The Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas, he argued, has gone out of its way to meet US demands. “Mr Abbas has been keen to show he is not Yasser Arafat, he has shunned violence, he focused on state building and tried to stay in good graces of US administration.” But the cost was “very high domestically, and the Jerusalem announcement pulls the rug out from under Abbas.” Now Mr Abbas “is angry, bitter and feels betrayed,” Mr Elgindy said.

The only window that could resurrect US mediation, he said, is if Mr Trump "comes out and say something along the line of Bill Clinton parameters... that east Jerusalem will be sovereign and a capital for Palestinians".

But he added that it’s hard to see Mr Trump saying that. “He has not called for ending the occupation or even endorsed the two-state solution. The terms of reference [for the peace process] have changed, and it’s no longer feasible for the Palestinians to be part of it.”

A US official on the call on Friday declined to call the West Bank an occupied territory. “I have my own personal views... and the the situation in the West Bank is unique and unprecedented,” he said.