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Trump's Jerusalem move brings little change, big risk

By AFP
media A Palestinian protester burns an image of US President Donal Trump during a protest against his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel near the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 7, 2017 AFP

US President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital may bring little immediate concrete change but risks sparking another round of violence in a conflict that has lasted decades.

While Trump waded deep into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Wednesday's declaration on Jerusalem, many analysts said his main audience was the president's right-wing Christian political base in the United States.

Still, the recognition, though it came with pledges of pursuing peace, risks igniting yet another round of violence in the region.

A series of clashes and protests erupted in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in the wake of the decision on Thursday, while armed Islamist movement Hamas called for a new intifada, or uprising.

Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Authority minister, said he did not believe a full-blown intifada would result, but it was too early to know to what degree unrest will occur.

"I think there will be a wave of popular protests," he told AFP. "I don’t know for how long. It depends on several factors, including how Israel responds to it."

Trump's move also drew global condemnation, including from traditional US allies who insisted on what has been the consensus in the international community: Jerusalem's status must be negotiated by Israel and the Palestinians.

Jerusalem remains a strong rallying cry for not only Palestinians, but also Muslims worldwide as the location of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam's third-holiest site.

The compound is located at the site that is also the holiest in Judaism, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and the city is considered by Jewish Israelis to be their 3,000-year-old capital.

- 'Licence to run amok' -

Jerusalem's status is perhaps the most difficult issue to resolve in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, with both sides claiming it as their capital.

"Nothing is ever sure in the Middle East, so it's unclear whether he is completely discrediting himself as mediator in the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians," said Yossi Alpher, an adviser to former Israeli premier Ehud Barak.

"But it is certain that the recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel is detrimental to the process."

Whether unrest would eventually spiral, either in the Palestinian territories or the wider region, was being closely watched, while questions were also being raised over whether a peace process is still possible.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said Trump had disqualified the United States from its role as traditional peace broker in the Middle East conflict, while others went further.

Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and longtime chief negotiator for the Palestinians, said he had destroyed the two-state solution -- the focus of years of international peace efforts.

Nahum Barnea, a columnist for Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonot, said "it would be ill-advised to overstate the importance" of Trump's speech since it was done for domestic political reasons.

But he noted, like many others, that reactions to it could spin out of control, with extremists on both sides encouraged.

"The impact of the speech won’t lie in the words comprising it, but in the way that the parties interpret it," he wrote.

"The Palestinians might despair and resort to violence; the right-wing parties in Israel might seek to accelerate annexation (of the West Bank)... Trump, they might think, has given them licence to run amok."

- 'Forces of extremists' -

But for Israeli leaders, the declaration was long overdue and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu encouraged other countries to follow suit.

He pledged to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem's highly sensitive holy sites for Muslims, Christians and Jews -- a frequent source of tension.

For Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, arguing that Jerusalem's status should be negotiated as part of "final-status" talks on the conflict was misguided since that stage in peace efforts was a long way off.

“Everybody who speaks about final-status agreement doesn’t understand reality," he said Wednesday.

"What is possible to achieve is a long-term interim agreement, not more. Jerusalem and Israel, it’s a sensitive time and sensitive region. We are ready for all developments."

But for Erekat, who has long had ties with US diplomats and recently returned from medical treatment in the United States, Trump has crossed the line.

"I think tonight he is strengthening the forces of extremists in this region as no one has done before," he said after Trump's speech.

 
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