By Hidemitsu Kibe from Dubai, Akihiro Sano from Jerusalem
The U.S. moved its Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which it recognizes as Israel’s capital, when Israel celebrated the 70th anniversary of its foundation on May 14. In Gaza, a clash erupted between people protesting the relocation and Israeli forces, leaving more than 50 Palestinians dead. Tensions are escalating, as the U.S. led by President Donald Trump pushed forward with the relocation in the teeth of opposition from the international community. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, this has become another flashpoint in the Middle East.
The relocation issue does not only deepen the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Jerusalem is sacred not only to the Jews but also for Muslims and Christians. Their holy sites are concentrated in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians have designated as the capital of their future sovereign state. Arab states have long supported this Palestinian stance. On May 14, Turkey, Jordan and several other Muslim nations issued a statement condemning the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.
But reactions by Arab states highlight some complexities. Though Arab leaders do not welcome the relocation of the U.S. embassy, their criticism of the U.S. and Israel has been muted to a surprising degree.
In Washington, a scene that symbolizes Arab nations’ response to this issue was witnessed this past March. At Café Milano, a fancy Italian restaurant located near the Potomac River, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was dining with his wife. When he was told the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain ambassadors to the U.S. were sitting at a table near his, he reportedly walked over to them and shook their hands before leaving the restaurant.
Many Arab states have not established diplomatic relations with Israel and don’t even recognize it as an independent state. But it is no secret that they align themselves with Israel to confront Iran, their common enemy. Saudi Arabia and other Arab states have long opted to join hands with the U.S. and Israel, rather than antagonize them, to contain Iran, as they do not want the Shia Muslim nation to broaden its footprint in the Middle East.
These calculated approaches will soon face a test. The embassy relocation is stoking tensions in the Palestinian situation beyond what one can expect. It has become uncertain whether the leaders of Arab states will continue to contain anti-U.S. sentiment. Since the Trump administration decided to move the embassy to Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority has been rejecting U.S. mediation of peace talks. It remains to be seen whether the moribund peacemaking process will be restored.
Rumor has it that President Trump steamrolled this decision to win over evangelical Christians, an influential pro-Israel support base. But the risk that spreads in the Middle East and across the globe far outweighs what he gains. (Abridged)