Opinion: Trump wantonly fans the flames of Middle East conflict

With his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, US President Donald Trump risks a dangerous escalation. Both Palestinians and Israelis could suffer in equal measure, says DW's Rainer Sollich.

Almost the whole world had warned the US president against taking this step: Palestinians, Arab and Islamic countries, but also Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Russia and the Pope. Several Israeli and Jewish voices, such as the established Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the Central Council of Jews in Germany also expressed criticism of the move. It fell on deaf ears. All of them could not stop Donald Trump.

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Rainer Sollich heads DW's Arabic department

Notwithstanding the many warnings and concerns about a new outbreak of violence in the Middle East, he kept his campaign promise and unilaterally recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital — including moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to the city that is considered holy by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Humiliation for the Palestinians

That's not only a symbolically grave step because many Arabs and Muslims – including those outside the Palestinian territories ­– may take it as a severe humiliation and a political defeat. When it comes to Jerusalem, religious and political emotions always run high. On the political level, the United States is breaking not only demonstratively and needlessly from a decades-long consensus in international Middle East diplomacy, according to which the status of Jerusalem should be clarified in the course of a final peace settlement, but the Palestinians continue to claim the eastern part of Jerusalem as a capital for their own future state. With Trump's decision, the US also de facto becomes the only country worldwide to subsequently legitimize the annexation of East Jerusalem, which has been considered a clear breach of international law.

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What did Trump just do?

With that, Trump creates a fait accompli and brings the weaknesses and powerlessness of the Palestinians and the Arab-Islamic world before their own eyes. Angry demonstrations, outbreaks of violence, terrorism, notes of protest, the severing of political ties or diplomatic relations: many serious reactions threaten to follow. It is the US president, with his absurd and highly dangerous decision, who bears full responsibility. The move cannot be politically justified. Trump is only, wantonly and in the most dangerous way, fueling the Middle East conflict.

Read more: US Embassy move to Jerusalem could spark 'third intifada' Germany's former ambassador says

A fait accompli

Despite all the protests, it's unlikely Trump will back down. An independent Palestinian state, if it ever comes, will not only have to look for a new capital but will also have to accept further painful concessions. The alliance between the US and Israel is so strong right now that Palestinians and Arabs are powerless against it – especially as many Arab leaders are in reality pursuing very different priorities, in spite of their public shows of solidarity toward their "Palestinian brothers." 

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Jerusalem's disputed legal status

Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia had warned the US president against unilaterally changing the status of Jerusalem. But the Saudis are currently shaking up their own internal power structures and fighting with increasing bitterness against the growing influence of their geostrategic rival Iran. For this, they depend on strong partners like Trump and, despite the lack of diplomatic relations, strive behind the scenes for cooperation with Israel, which also sees Iran as a dangerous security risk. The possibility of Saudi Arabia becoming a sort of godfather for a future Middle East peace has been talked about.

But any progress in this area is likely to be impossible for the time being due to Trump's decision — and in reality, Saudi Arabia's leadership may be just as indifferent to the fate of the Palestinians as the Iranian leadership, which likes to hide its own ambitions for political power behind pro-Palestinian rhetoric and hateful slogans against Israel.

The United States only wants to acknowledge reality and remains committed to the goal of peace in the Middle East, Trump assured as he announced his decision. That can only be called cynical. Because it's Israelis and Palestinians alike who stand to suffer the consequences.

Politics

UN Security Council Resolution 242, 1967

United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, passed on November 22, 1967, called for the exchange of land for peace. Since then, many of the attempts to establish peace in the region have referred to 242. The resolution was written in accordance with Chapter VI of the UN Charter, under which resolutions are recommendations, not orders.

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Camp David Accords, 1978

A coalition of Arab states, led by Egypt and Syria, fought Israel in the Yom Kippur or October War in October 1973. The conflict eventually led to the secret peace talks that yielded two agreements after 12 days. This picture from March 26, 1979, shows Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, his US counterpart Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin after signing the accords in Washington.

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The Madrid Conference, 1991

The US and the former Soviet Union came together to organize a conference in the Spanish capital city of Madrid. The discussions involved Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestinians — not from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) — who met with Israeli negotiators for the first time. While the conference achieved little, it did create the framework for later, more productive talks.

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Oslo I Accord, 1993

The negotiations in Norway between Israel and the PLO, the first direct meeting between the two parties, resulted in the the Oslo I Accord. The agreement was signed in the US in September 1993. It demanded that Israeli troops withdraw from West Bank and Gaza and a self-governing, interim Palestinian authority be set up for a five-year transitional period. A second accord was signed in 1995.

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Camp David Summit Meeting, 2000

US President Bill Clinton invited Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to the retreat in July 2000 to discuss borders, security, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem. Despite the negotiations being more detailed than ever before, no agreement was concluded. The failure to reach a consensus at Camp David was followed by renewed Palestinian uprising, the Second Intifada.

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The Arab Peace Initiative, 2002

The Camp David negotiations were followed first by meetings in Washington and then in Cairo and Taba, Egypt — all without results. Later the Arab League proposed the Arab Peace Initiative in Beirut in March 2002. The plan called on Israel to withdraw to pre-1967 borders so that a Palestinian state could be set up in the West Bank and Gaza. In return, Arab countries would agree to recognize Israel.

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The Roadmap, 2003

The US, EU, Russia and the UN worked together as the Middle East Quartet to develop a road map to peace. While Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas accepted the text, his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon had more reservations with the wording. The timetable called for a final agreement on a two-state solution to be reached in 2005. Unfortunately, it was never implemented.

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Annapolis, 2007

In 2007 US President George W. Bush hosted a conference in Annapolis, Maryland, to relaunch the peace process. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas took part in talks with officials from the Quartet and over a dozen Arab states. It was agreed that further negotiations would be held with the goal of reaching a peace deal by the end of 2008.

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Washington, 2010

In 2010, US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell convinced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to and implement a ten-month moratorium on settlements in disputed territories. Later, Netanyahu and Abbas agreed to relaunch direct negotiations to resolve all issues. Negotiations began in Washington in September 2010, but within weeks there was a deadlock.

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Cycle of escalation and ceasefire continues

A new round of violence broke out in and around Gaza late 2012. A ceasefire was reached between Israel and those in power in the Gaza Strip, which held until June 2014. The kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in June 2014 resulted in renewed violence and eventually led to the Israeli military operation Protective Edge. It ended with a ceasefire on August 26, 2014.

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Paris Summit, 2017

Envoys from over 70 countries gathered in Paris, France, to discuss the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Netanyahu slammed the discussions as "rigged" against his country. Neither Israeli nor Palestinian representatives attended the summit. "A two-state solution is the only possible one," French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said at the opening of the event.

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Deteriorating relations in 2017

Despite the year's optimistic opening, 2017 brought further stagnation in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A deadly summer attack on Israeli police at the Temple Mount, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims, sparked deadly clashes. Then US President Donald Trump's plan to move the embassy to Jerusalem prompted Palestinian leader Abbas to say "the measures ... undermine all peace efforts."

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