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The controversial US Jerusalem embassy opening, explained

As the embassy event took place, Israeli soldiers killed dozens of Palestinian protesters along the Gaza border.

US ambassador to Israel David Friedman listens as Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. The United States moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem after months of gl
US ambassador to Israel David Friedman listens as Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018.
AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, the US officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as a new US Embassy opened there.

It’s a controversial move that breaks with decades of official US policy — and it comes at a particularly tumultuous time for Israel and the region.

President Donald Trump announced his decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem back in December, calling it “a long-overdue step to advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agreement.”

On May 14, which coincided with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, Trump’s daughter Ivanka, her husband Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and a number of members of Congress attended the opening ceremony in the former consulate building in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona. The new embassy will be housed there temporarily, as the administration scouts out a permanent location. Christian and Jewish religious leaders were reportedly in attendance as well — the guest list included close to 800 people. Trump himself spoke by video link from Washington.

But as the embassy event got underway on Monday, Israeli soldiers were firing on Palestinian protesters at the Gaza border.

As of Tuesday morning, they had killed at least 60 people and wounded thousands of others. Many of the protesters were unarmed, though some hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails. The Israeli military also said that they shot three protesters who were attempting to detonate a bomb. No Israelis so far have been injured.

Palestinians are in their seventh week of protests at the border with Gaza, calling for the right of return to territory that is now part of Israel. They’re also protesting the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which is suffering from a stifling Israeli and Egyptian blockade.

The embassy opening also comes right before what Palestinians call Nakba Day, or the Day of Catastrophe, where Palestinians commemorate lands they either fled or were evicted from after the creation of the state of Israel. Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, also begins this week.

Meanwhile, Israel and Iran’s shadow war in Syria is moving closer to becoming an actual, full-blown conflict. On May 9, Iran reportedly launched 20 missiles into the Golan Heights, and Israel responded with strikes on Iranian-linked targets in Syria. Last week, Trump announced that the US was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, a move that could push Iran closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Put together, the embassy move is happening at a chaotic, unpredictable, and dangerous time for both the region and Israel itself. And though the White House says that moving the US embassy to Jerusalem will increase stability and the chance of peace, there’s a real reason to worry that it will do the opposite.

Here’s why the embassy move is so controversial

When the president announced the decision to move the embassy back in December, it placed him squarely in the middle of the decades-long conflict over Jerusalem.

As Sarah Wildman and Jennifer Williams wrote for Vox in December, both the Palestinians and the Israelis claim Jerusalem as their capital, and the city contains sites sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Though Israel’s parliament and the prime minister’s home are in Jerusalem, they sit in West Jerusalem, on the side of the city Israel has controlled since 1949. Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and annexed that half of the city.

The international community considers East Jerusalem occupied territory. But that half of the city also contains sites holy to all three major monotheistic religions, including the Western Wall, the holiest place in the world where Jews can openly pray, and Haram al-Sharif, Arabic for “the Noble Sanctuary,” a sacred site for Muslims that Israelis refer to as the Temple Mount.

The Palestinians want to officially divide the city and make East Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state. The Israelis disagree — and the right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long made clear that it wouldn’t consider making concessions over Jerusalem, in part because Jews were barred from the Western Wall when the Old City was under Jordanian control in the years before the 1967 war.

All of this helps explain why the Israeli government was pleased when Trump made good on a promise he’d made time and time again during his campaign and recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

To be clear, Trump isn’t the first US president to talk about moving the American embassy to Jerusalem. As Politico points out, Bill Clinton said he supported the idea in principle. George W. Bush declared he would move the US ambassador there in 2000. And Barack Obama, for his part, referred to the city as the capital of Israel and said it must remain “undivided.” Congress has also repeatedly passed legislation calling for the embassy move.

But none of the previous presidents followed through — one reason being that the move would appear to put the US squarely on the side of Israel.

Ilan Goldenberg, a Middle East expert with the Center for New American Security, told me that Trump’s decision significantly undercuts the US’s credibility as a neutral party in the conflict.

As the country that has led the Israeli-Palestinian peace process negotiations for the past 25 years, the US is “supposed to be acting like the fireman,” he said. “Instead, we’re acting like the arsonist — we’re making things worse.”

The embassy move could also make the chances of a peace deal, already remote given that the two sides haven’t held serious peace talks in years, nearly impossible.

“Jerusalem is the linchpin to an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement,” Khaled Elgindy, a fellow with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, told me.

Trump’s recognition of the city as Israel’s capital is a “huge victory” for the Israelis, he added, but it also “essentially takes a Palestinian state off the table.”

People expected “the Arab street” to explode when Trump announced the move. It didn’t.

Much of the world was shocked when Trump announced the upcoming embassy move, and world leaders feared there would be an outbreak of violence. Palestinians held a general strike, and four protesters died during clashes with Israeli soldiers. Thousands protested in Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco, and elsewhere. But the protests were short-lived and mostly peaceful. The massive violent reaction people feared never came.

Indeed, neighboring Arab countries’ reactions in recent months have been fairly muted. Many are dealing with their own domestic issues, such as economic issues, political unrest in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and two ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

“The people in the region have been through a great deal of hardship over the past few years owing to war, conflict, and authoritarianism,” H.A. Hellyer, an expert on the politics of the Arab world, told me. “I don’t think they have the bandwidth to respond to this latest political outrage.”

There’s also the fact that several Arab countries have quietly begun to grow closer to Israel. For two years, Egypt secretly allowed Israel to carry out drone strikes against militant groups on the restive Sinai peninsula. Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince informally known as MBS, reportedly disparaged the Palestinian leadership while visiting the US in March, saying, “It’s about time the Palestinians take the proposals and agree to come to the negotiations table or shut up and stop complaining.” In an Atlantic interview, he also said that Israel had the right to “their own land.”

And just last week, after Trump withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal and Iran reportedly fired missiles into Israel, Bahrain’s foreign minister tweeted that Israel has the right to defend itself in the face of Iranian aggression — a sign that Arab fears about the growing threat posed by Iran may trump former regional disagreements.

Despite these signs, though, it would be wrong to assume that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has fallen off the radar for Arab leaders. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud put the issue of Palestine at the top of the Arab League conference’s agenda last month, declared that it would be called the “Jerusalem summit,” and issued a strong statement condemning Washington’s planned embassy move. And MBS himself said that there would be no normalization with Israel until the “Palestinian issue was resolved.”

These conflicting signals mean it’s impossible to know whether the actual embassy move will spark widespread violence in neighboring countries — or pass by relatively quietly.

Trump’s decision probably won’t have the outcome he says he wants

According to the State Department, the new embassy is opening in the building that houses current consular operations in southern Jerusalem. There are plans to relocate it to a separate annex, and a permanent location, by the end of 2019.

The Trump administration says that it’s not taking a stance on final status issues like the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. And during a White House call on Friday, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said the move was done to create “a better dynamic for peace,” and that “from a broader perspective, this helps stability.”

But Friedman also said that no members of the US delegation coming to celebrate the embassy move had plans to meet with any Palestinian officials.

And experts say this move essentially shuts down any potential talks with Palestinians.

“If you don’t have Palestinian involvement, you don’t have a peace process. It’s as simple as that,” Elgindy told me. “I don’t see how a Palestinian leader can engage with this administration on the peace process after Monday.”

It seems much more likely, Elgindy continued, that another country will have to step in and take on the primary role of overseeing peace negotiations. But it’s unclear which country that would be or how long it would take.

With the US effectively discredited by this move, “we have a vacuum that’s not likely to be filled anytime soon. Anything that would emerge would have to be an entirely new framework for peace,” he told me. “We’re just in limbo.”

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