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Trump Calls Jerusalem Plan Step Toward Peace, but It Puts Mideast on Edge
Palestinians burned photos of President Trump in Gaza, and the walls of the Old City were illuminated with the American and Israeli flags on Wednesday, as Mr. Trump made good on his campaign pledge to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
In a much-anticipated speech from the White House, Mr. Trump argued that it was "the right thing to do" to acknowledge the reality that Jerusalem is the seat of Israel's government. Decades of avoiding that fact, he said, has done little to resolve the protracted feud between Israelis and Palestinians.
"It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result," Mr. Trump declared. Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, he said, is "a long overdue step to advance the peace process."
Mr. Trump said that the United States still wanted a negotiated peace agreement – and "would support a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides" – and that he was not seeking to dictate the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the fiercely contested Holy City.
"There will, of course, be disagreement and dissent regarding this announcement," the president said. He appealed for "calm, for moderation, and for the voices of tolerance to prevail over the purveyors of hate."
Mr. Trump's recognition of Jerusalem isolates the United States on one of the world's most sensitive diplomatic issues. It drew a storm of criticism from Arab and European leaders, including some of America's closest allies.
Many said that Mr. Trump's move was destabilizing, that it risked setting off violence and that it would make achieving peace even more difficult. It also threw into doubt his ability to maintain the United States' longstanding role as a mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mr. Trump's break with policy and international consensus included setting into motion a plan to move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Although that will not happen right away, Palestinians saw it as a deep affront.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, a veteran of the peace process, said bitterly that the United States had effectively scrapped it. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, called for the abandonment of a two-state solution altogether.
Among Israelis, however, Mr. Trump's announcement drew praise, not only from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government but also from liberal opposition leaders. "The Jewish people and the Jewish state will be forever grateful," Mr. Netanyahu said in a video, calling Mr. Trump's decision "courageous and just" and "an important step towards peace."
Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, a center-left opposition party, said: "Policies should not be dictated by threats and intimidation. If violence is the only argument against moving the embassy to Jerusalem, then it only proves it is the right thing to do."
Naftali Bennett, the education minister and leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, said American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital "shows that Israel's strategic patience has paid off."
"We have been told again and again that if we want more acceptance, we have to cut off parts of Israel and hand them over to our enemies," he said. "What we are learning is the contrary: The world respects strong countries who believe in themselves and looks down on countries willing to give up their homeland."
Yet Israelis also braced for violence, as some Palestinian leaders urged a third intifada, or armed uprising.
Fatah, Hamas and other Palestinian factions called a general strike for Thursday, urging residents of the West Bank and Gaza to join marches in every city, and officials said the Palestinian schools would be closed. Hamas, an Islamic militant group, said Mr. Trump's decision would "open the gates of hell," and Islamic Jihad called it a "declaration of war."
By late Wednesday night, there were only scattered, unconfirmed reports of gunfire and clashes with security forces in several West Bank cities.
But the United States Consulate General in Jerusalem barred American government employees and their families from visiting Jerusalem's Old City and the West Bank, including Bethlehem, already decorated for Christmas. Government workers were permitted to conduct essential travel only. American citizens were advised to avoid crowds.
In Jordan, the United States Embassy said it had suspended routine public services, limited the public movements of employees and their families and instructed them not to send their children to school on Thursday.
But even as Arab and Muslim leaders across the Middle East condemned Mr. Trump's announcement, doubts were raised about the stamina of the anger. The Palestinian issue, long a binding force in Arab politics, has slipped in importance in recent years, overshadowed by other conflicts. Still, the American decision risked a backlash with unpredictable consequences.
Palestinians across the political spectrum said Mr. Trump's decision was so biased toward Israel that he had irrevocably harmed his administration's ability to be seen as a fair broker.
Analysts noted that Mr. Trump had said nothing about Palestinian aspirations to make East Jerusalem the capital of a state side-by-side with Israel.
Mr. Trump made no distinction between the western portions of the city and East Jerusalem. The Old City landmarks he invoked – the Western Wall holy to Jews, the stations of the cross sacred to Christians, and Al-Aqsa mosque, which is cherished by Muslims – are all east of the 1967 line, in what the rest of the world still considers occupied territory, said Nathan Thrall, an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the International Crisis Group.
Mr. Trump's formulation that the United States "would support a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides," too, amounted to a rolling back of United States policy flatly supporting a two-state solution, said Daniel Kurtzer, a Princeton professor and former ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush.
"There's really not much for Abbas to hang onto if he wanted to stay in the game with the U.S.," Mr. Kurtzer said.
Mr. Trump's decision was driven by a campaign pledge. He appealed to evangelicals and ardently pro-Israel American Jews when running for president in 2016 by vowing to move the embassy. Advisers said he was determined to make good on his word.
But the president still plans to sign a national security waiver to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv for an additional six months, even as the relocation plan moves ahead.
White House officials argued that Mr. Trump's decision would bolster his credibility as a peacemaker by showing he can be trusted to deliver on promises. They also argued that by taking the contentious issue of Jerusalem off the table, Mr. Trump had removed a recurring source of ambiguity.
Those arguments were rejected by Mr. Abbas, who said in a televised speech Wednesday night that Mr. Trump's actions "constitute a deliberate undermining of all peace efforts" and amounted to a "withdrawal" from America's role.
The decisions on the embassy and recognition of Jerusalem "also reward Israel for denying agreements and defying international resolutions, and encourage Israel to pursue the policy of occupation, settlement, apartheid and ethnic cleansing," Mr. Abbas said, speaking in Arabic that was translated by Wafa, the Palestinian news agency.
Yet the Palestinians, weak and divided, did not appear to have many good options or any clear, ready response.
Some raised the idea of severing security cooperation with Israel, but that cooperation also helps preserve Mr. Abbas's authority. And breaking more forcefully with the United States could jeopardize the vast sums of aid the Palestinian Authority receives from Washington.
Mr. Abbas said he would focus on reconciliation efforts with Hamas to face the new challenge. But the American declaration could actually hurt those efforts.
"This development will push Hamas to become more hard-line," said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank. "Abbas will not change his political line, so the gap will grow."
Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer-activist and former aide to Mr. Abbas, said the peace process had failed him. "He has to switch tactics," she said, pointing to international measures like the boycott-divestment-sanctions campaign and pressing charges against Israelis in the International Criminal Court.
"Doing nothing is no longer an option," she said.
Mr. Thrall, the analyst, said the two-state strategy had been losing credibility among Palestinians for some time, particularly among the young. And Mr. Trump's actions, he said, would push more Palestinians toward what he called "a rights-based struggle for equality," and "a one-state, South African model for Palestinians."
"Nothing better symbolizes for Palestinians the idiocy of the strategy that their leaders have been pursuing and the absolute fruitlessness of it than what just happened at the White House today," he said.
Israel's standing in the world generally suffers when there is no prospect of peace negotiations. But Israelis on both the right and left dismissed the notion that Mr. Trump's declaration was a death knell.
The right described it as more of a reality check. "It doesn't matter what Trump says," said Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, a conservative think tank. "It matters if the Palestinians are ready to compromise on this issue or not."
Still, Mr. Netanyahu could now face a new set of political problems from Mr. Trump's announcement, including increased pressure from key allies to press Israel's advantage over the Palestinians.
Already, there is a push to redraw the boundaries of Jerusalem to eject much of its Arab population and add tens of thousands of residents to Israeli settlements.
"The problem he's going to have is, will he now be able to control the appetites of those in his coalition who want to do even more?" Mr. Kurtzer said.
Others warned that Israel might have to pay a price down the road if Mr. Trump – assuming he is serious about peacemaking – offers a concession to the Palestinians.
"The next time Trump wants something from Israel," said Nachman Shai, a Labor Party member of the Knesset, "I'd like to see who will say no."
[Source: By David M. Halbfinger, Mark Landler and Isabel Kershner, The New York Times, Jerusalem, 06Dec17]
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