Trump’s Jerusalem move: A new test for USA’s Middle East allies – Zeeshan Haider

Any cooperation between Palestinian militant groups and Hezbollah could put America’s Arab allies in a tight corner a potential conflict in this case would carry the potential of exacerbating rivalries among Arab and Muslim nations.


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with President Donald Trump in Jerusalem, Israel, Tuesday, May 23. | AP Photo

Donald Trump’s shock announcement recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has thrown the violence-prone Middle East into a new round of chaos and instability. Tens of thousands of people in the Arab and Islamic world took to the streets to protest the decision which could not win even a single word of support from anywhere in the world.

Muslim nations roundly condemned the controversial move which includes shifting of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The European Union foreign ministers greeted Benjamin Netanyahu to a first visit by any Israeli prime minister to EU’s Brussels headquarters in over two decades, with a strong opposition to Trump’s decision.

EU foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini rebuffed Netanyahu’s appeal for relocation of the embassies of the EU members to Jerusalem by saying that “he (Netanyahu) can keep his expectations for others, because from the European Union member states’ side, this move will not come.”

French President Emmanuel Macron separately told Netanyahu in Paris that Trump’s announcement runs counter to the international law. But the million dollar question is whether Trump’s “isolation” and his all-out condemnation on reversing US decade’s old position could force him to review his decision or at least cede some concessions to the Palestinian people? Or behind-the-scenes pressures from the US would make the world leaders agree to his position.

Though Muslim and Arab nations opposed Trump’s decision but they are unlikely to move beyond rhetoric for most of them are close US allies. The timid declarations after the Arab League’s ministerial conference in Cairo and then the emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) are signs of a soft-pedaling approach.

The absence of leaders from key Arab nations – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Kuwait – from the Istanbul summit showed that they did not want to annoy the United States. Moreover, deep internal fissures in the Islamic world particularly two heavyweights – Saudi Arabia and Iran – make it difficult for the Muslim nations to forge a united stand.

Riyadh and its Arab allies rely heavily on Washington for their security as they see Teheran, rather than Tel Aviv, as a real threat to their existence and hence one should not expect tough measures, like 1973 oil embargo, against the Israel by Saudi Arabia and co. On the contrary, before Trump’s announcement, there have been growing suggestions that the Jewish state and Arab countries cooperate to counter Iranian threat.

In November, a prominent Saudi website, Elaph, carried an unprecedented interview with Israel’s army chief, Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot suggesting Riyadh and Tel Aviv share intelligence information when it comes to Iran. As Palestinian people are seething with anger, a delegation from a non-government organization from Bahrain – another major US ally – was visiting Israel, including Jerusalem, to promote “tolerance and existence”.

Ironically, contrary to this subdued stance, some Muslims countries took tough public position ostensibly to appease their domestic audience. Apart from Iran – which neither has diplomatic ties with Washington nor does it recognize Israel – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has issued some strongly-worded statements threatening to cut off ties with Israel. He also dubbed Israel as a “terrorist state”.

Demonstrations in the Middle East, so far, are manageable but if they intensify in case of a conflict between Israel and groups like Hamas, the US regional allies might come under the pump to take a hard-line stance against Palestine. The Palestinian militant group, Hamas, has already called on fellow Palestinians to give up peace talks with Israelis and launch a new Intifada, an uprising, in the face of Trump’s decision. The call was backed by Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based and Iranian-backed militant group, which too has urged all resistance groups in the region to join hands to defeat the US move.

Any cooperation between Palestinian militant groups and Hezbollah could put America’s Arab allies in a tight corner as a potential conflict in such case would carry the potential of exacerbating rivalries among Arab and Muslim nations. Qatar’s perceived support for Hamas and Iran’s backing for Hezbollah could deepen their tensions with Saudi Arabia.

Qatar has long been suspected by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies of having links with Hamas and other radical Muslim groups; and severing these ties was one of the major demands from Riyadh to normalize its relations with Doha. Interestingly, the United States too has started singling out countries, like Qatar and Turkey, which have not backed its controversial.

In a public policy appearance at the Policy Exchange think tank in Washington, the US national security adviser HR McMaster condemned Qatar and Turkey for taking on a “new role” as the main sponsors and sources of funding for extremist Islamist ideology that targets western interests.

Any escalation of violence in the occupied Palestinian territories could trigger more vocal protests in other parts of the world like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh as well as in East Asian nations which have very sentimental attachment to the Palestinian cause. Though Muslim nations seem unable to take any concrete steps to counter Trump’s controversial decision, they could still lobby with major world powers, notably Russia and China, to play their role in defusing the tensions stoked by Trump.

Buoyed over Russia’s dominant role in defeating the forces battling Syrian President Bashar al Assad forces, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped up efforts to expand Moscow’s clout in the Middle East. In a recent tour to the region, Putin condemned the US Jerusalem move, saying: “It is destabilizing the region and wiping out the prospect of peace.

The Muslim leaders face a dual challenge of keeping militant groups like Daesh and Al Qaeda from exploiting the situation in their favour and also keeping the popular anger on the streets under control. Any failure to control this anger could unravel instability in these countries and aid militant organisations in easy recruitment of radicalised youth.

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