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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Arab League slams US decision to open Jerusalem embassy in May

The embassy is due to open on May 14, the date on which Palestinians mark the displacement of seven hundred thousand of their people during Israel's creation, known as the nakba (catastrophe)

US President Donald Trump announced in December 2017 that he would move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Saul Loeb / AFP
US President Donald Trump announced in December 2017 that he would move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Saul Loeb / AFP

The Arab League on Saturday slammed the US announcement that it would relocate its embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May.

The Trump administration said on Friday it would bring forward the controversial move to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Israeli state.

But the news enraged the Palestine Liberation Organisation, who called it a "blatant provocation" — particularly given that May 14 is also the date on which Palestinians mark the displacement of seven hundred thousand of their people during Israel's creation, known as the nakba (catastrophe).

The US decision is the latest in a chain of provocative and erroneous resolutions, ongoing since December, Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Abul-Gheit said in a statement, warning that Washington's approach could destroy the last hope for peace and coexistence between the Palestinians and Israelis.

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What is more, he added, according to the state-run Kuwaiti News Agency (Kuna), relocating the embassy on the same date as the Nakba anniversary reveals Washington's full bias for Israel and a lack of any rational reading of the nature and history of the conflict by the United States.

He said the US was no longer entitled to sponsor the Middle East peace process, echoing similar claims made by the Palestinian Authority since US President Donald Trump announced the embassy relocation in December last year.

Mr Abul-Gheit added, however, that the embassy relocation would not affect Jerusalem's status as an occupied city.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the announcement on Friday that the US embassy relocation would be brought forward, thanking Mr Trump for his "leadership" and his "friendship", Agence France-Presse reported.

The embassy move is expected to complicate efforts to restart peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians — and further jeopardise the traditional, if disputed, US role as an "honest broker" in efforts to resolve one of the world's most intractable conflicts.

"In May, the United States plans to open a new US embassy in Jerusalem. The opening will coincide with Israel's 70th anniversary," US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Friday.

Until now, the US embassy has been located in Tel Aviv with a separate consulate general located in Jerusalem that represents American interests in the Palestinian territories.

The new embassy will be initially located in the US consular building in Jerusalem's Arnona neighbourhood while Washington searches for a permanent location, "the planning and construction of which will be a longer-term undertaking", Ms Nauert said.

The interim embassy will contain office space for the ambassador and "a small staff", she added.

"By the end of next year, we intend to open a new embassy Jerusalem annex on the Arnona compound that will provide the ambassador and his team with expanded interim office space," she added.

Mr Trump broke with decades of policy in December when he announced US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and pledged to move the embassy. The move drew near global condemnation, enraged the Palestinians and sparked days of unrest in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.

It ruptured generations of international consensus that Jerusalem's status should be settled as part of a two-state peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

The PLO immediately decried Washington's embassy announcement as a "provocation to all Arabs".

"The American administration's decisions to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital and choose the Palestinian people's Nakba as the date for this step is a blatant violation of international law," said the PLO's second-in-command, Saeb Erekat.

He said the result would be "the destruction of the two-state option, as well as a blatant provocation to all Arabs and Muslims".

Israel follows the Jewish lunar calendar, so this year's official independence celebration falls on April 19.

Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, while many Palestinians see the eastern part as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Mr Trump said his recognition of Jerusalem, which made good on a 2016 campaign pledge, marked the start of a "new approach" to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israelis and Palestinians alike have seen his move as Washington taking Israel's side in the conflict — a view reinforced by the White House's recent decision to withhold financing for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas travelled to the United Nations' headquarters in New York earlier this week to call for an international conference by mid-2018 in which the US would not have the central mediating role in launching a wider peace process.

Mr Trump's envoy for Middle East peace, Jason Greenblatt, and his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, subsequently met behind closed doors with UN Security Council ambassadors, soliciting their support for a prospective Trump peace plan.

While the Palestinians want a new international mechanism to shepherd peace talks, the details of the Trump plan and its timing are still unclear.

The revised schedule on the embassy move came after US Vice President Mike Pence pledged only last month to move the embassy by the end of 2019 in a speech to Israel's parliament that saw Palestinian lawmakers expelled after they shouted in protest.

"The hardest deal to make of any kind is between the Israelis and Palestinians," Mr Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday.

"We're actually making great headway. Jerusalem was the right thing to do."

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