US Jerusalem decision

29 January 2018

Two Gabr Fellows, Amr Seda and Michael Matthiesen, reflect on current relations between Egypt and the US.

President Trump called on “young and moderate voices in the Middle East” to speak up during his recent speech announcing the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. So here we are responding to the call, a 30-year-old moderate Egyptian with a Western education and an “Americanized” upbringing, who grew up highly affected by American values like freedom, tolerance, and justice, and a 28 year-old Arab-American born and raised in Miami, FL.

The Shafik Gabr Fellowship took us both recently to Egypt and the US on a cultural exchange program. For the Egyptian Fellows, being there, living and working with other American fellows, meeting American officials, and taking cultural tours, we quickly realized that America is as great as we had always learned from movies.

However, there is nothing great about moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. It had nothing to do with the “American” values we grew up learning. It does not promote freedom, tolerance, or justice. America was supposed to broker the “deal of the century.” Instead, it was unjust and biased. It was very clear that the US is taking sides – making it less trustworthy and no longer a neutral convener in peace negotiations.

This decision makes it harder for the Palestinians and the Israelis to come together and throws conversation and negotiation out of the window. Perhaps the world’s reaction is the biggest indicator to how dangerous and ill sighted this decision was.

Egypt, a close US ally and a country that has been making several efforts in the peace process over the years, described the recent move by the United States as “a serious threat to the future of the peace process” and that the situation in Palestine now “puts the whole region on the verge of burst.”

The European Union is not happy either. “He expects others to follow Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem. He can keep his expectations for others – because from the EU member states’ side, this move will not come” said EU foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini after a meeting with PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

Understandably, the sharpest reactions came from the Palestinians themselves. President Abbas said during the Islamic summit in Istanbul that Trump’s decision “crosses all red lines” and is “the greatest crime.” Fatah and Hamas announced that the decision “will open gates of hell.”

It is obvious that disrupting the status quo by “shocking the system” has been part of Trump’s strategy, but this is dangerous with the Israel-Palestine conflict. The most distressing part is Trump was only thinking of the domestic political victory that this decision will bring him. It’s an example of an administration prioritizing domestic politics over foreign affairs because of a President who can’t tell the difference. In foreign affairs this decision is a disaster, however those who only look at this decision through an international lens will be missing the fuller picture.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) praised the decision. In a press release, AIPAC said that the US has finally fulfilled the 1995 Jewish Embassy Act that requires the US embassy be in Jerusalem. AIPAC is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington D.C, and its presence in Washington explains why the US continues to support Israel over the Arab World. Establishing favorability with AIPAC would make Trump’s life easier, which begs the question: how is compromising America’s national security for a Washington lobby “draining the swamp?”

For several years, the GOP has also been rebranding itself as the “pro-Israel” party, and for strategic reasons. The US and Israel are the only countries in the world that have a larger Jewish than Arab population, meaning the GOP can get more voters than they lose with the Jerusalem decision. Jewish communities are prominent in swing states like Florida, and members of the community are large donors to political campaigns. So in short: more money, more votes, how is this not a win?

However, Trump fails to consider why his predecessors never moved the embassy before. The 1995 Act even compelled President Clinton to move the Embassy and he wouldn’t do it. Why? Because this decision endangers U.S interests more than it helps. America considers itself Israel’s protector, but Palestinian terrorists are only more likely to increase their efforts against Israel. The fight against terrorism is only going to be made harder with this decision, with more money spent and lives lost. Finally, another question to ask is why haven’t any of the U.S’s closest allies (U.K, Canada, France, or Germany) made this decision before? It’s because it makes working with key stakeholders in the Middle East a lot more difficult. There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, all concentrated in countries of strategic interest, or concern, like: Iran, Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Egypt. How is deescalating a nuclear Iran made easier by this decision? How can the U.S still be a legitimate mediator between Qatar and the rest of the Middle East if a majority of the stakeholders don’t trust Trump? For many of these issues, each of national security concern to the U.S, Trump may have surrendered all moderating privileges to Russia. Regardless of Trump’s admiration for Putin, Russia will not be looking out for U.S interests.

Those 1.8 billion will be citing International Law on why this was a bad decision, specifically the United Nations Security Council resolutions 476 and 478 of 1980, which did not recognize any measures that would change the status quo in Jerusalem and unanimously rejected all Israeli laws aimed at claiming Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel. Moreover, one year ago in 2016, the Security Council resolution 2334 reaffirmed in a very clear language, the condemnation of all measures aimed at changing the geographical situation of the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem.

This means that Palestine rights have been consistently violated by the occupation for the past several decades, and the international community has been watching all this time. American unilateral decisions that undermine the legitimacy of the UN should not be used so lightly. It sets precedent for other countries to pull a similar move in the future. How will the world ever pressure Russia or China when both countries can cite what the US has done?

Considering America’s seat on the US security council -- there is likely not much the UN will be able to do to change this. However, that doesn’t mean the UN should remain silent as there is a lot that the General Assembly can do to apply pressure to the US from making such unilateral decisions in the future.

On the other hand, the Palestinian government, Hamas, and Fatah, need to truly come together and combine their leadership, instead of the current pseudo unity. One of the reasons the international community is not standing firmly with the Palestinian rights is that they are fighting each other and are not united amongst themselves. More importantly, the Palestinian leaders need to publicly recognize the right of Israel to exist so their followers would be more likely to as well.

The United States and Israel have to know that Jerusalem’s case can only be settled through negotiations between the two concerned sides. Unilateral decisions like these are a threat to peace, and in the future the US must make such decisions with the support of allies or risk delegitimizing its role as a Super Power even further. We hope the current response from the international community will bring back the current US administration to its senses. That is the only way young and moderate voices around the world would consider America “great again.”

The applications for the 2022 Gabr Fellowship are now closed.