Over the past few days, media outlets have been claiming that President Donald Trump is about to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. These and other reports generated an immediate Palestinian reaction, and a senior delegation was dispatched to Washington on Dec. 2 to campaign against such American intentions.
But already 24 hours after Director of Palestinian Intelligence Majid Faraj landed in Washington, Ramallah started receiving tentative signs of the crisis calming, at least partially. While Trump has not retracted his decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel, Faraj understood from his counterparts in the American capital that the decision is not final. It may not be too late to change what the Palestinians view as an unfortunate decision.
A senior Palestinian source told Al-Monitor that during this past weekend (before the delegation was dispatched to Washington), it became clear to the Palestinian leadership that Trump is determined to carry out the declaration regarding the Israeli capital. However, it was also clear that Trump intends to delay the actual relocation of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to a later date. The Palestinians understood that the American president will use the embassy issue as an incentive in the diplomatic relations between Israel and the Palestinians: If the Palestinians are the recalcitrant ones, then Trump will threaten them (again) with the relocation of the American legation to Jerusalem.
Indeed, on Dec. 3, the situation seemed less definitive. The president’s son-in-law, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, told the Saban Forum in Washington that Trump has not yet reached a decision regarding the recognition of Jerusalem and that he is still weighing the matter. Kushner noted that even though many correspondents say they know what the president decided, ''He's still looking at a lot of different facts, and when he makes his decision he'll be the one who wants to tell you.'' Nevertheless, Kushner did not deny reports that Trump does want to realize his election promise of relocating the US Embassy to Jerusalem, but apparently he would rather realize it later on.
Faraj heard things in this vein in his meetings in Washington. According to the Palestinian source’s assessment of the situation, the reason that Trump has not yet announced his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is due to the talks being held by his administration with Jordanian King Abdullah II, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
In fact, the information about Trump’s decision to make a public statement regarding Jerusalem reached the Palestinian Authority (PA) from Trump’s envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt. Similar reports were conveyed by PLO representative in Washington Husam Zomlot. According to the information received, Trump will declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel but will delay the physical relocation of the embassy to a later date. Those in Abbas’ bureau understood from this that the embassy issue will be used as a diplomatic weapon against them. As aforementioned, the goal will be to encourage them to make progress in the American peace initiative that Trump will present in 2018.
The information received in Ramallah last week was accompanied by American explanations and a list of reservations. For example, the Americans said that the Jerusalem-as-Israeli-capital declaration in no way abrogates the American recognition of the rights of Palestinians and Muslims everywhere to carry out their religious rituals in the city. It was also clarified that parallel to the president’s preparations for his declaration, an American team headed by National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster was examining alternatives to a declaration — an alternative that would not harm new attempts to renew negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. The final decision is expected to be made by the end of December.
Ever since Trump took office, his intentions of relocating the embassy to Jerusalem kept surfing up. The Palestinians for their part kept transmitting to Trump’s advisers the following message: As far as Abbas is concerned, any declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and a physical relocation of the embassy would put an end to Abbas’ efforts to reach peace with Israel. In addition, such steps could well lead to the collapse of the PA. It was also explained to the Americans that after taking such a step, Palestinian public opinion could never be convinced that the United States is truly a fair and objective “honest broker” in its mediation efforts. This, in turn, would transform any diplomatic initiative of the White House into a foretold failure.
From the moment Trump entered the White House, Ramallah searched for the key to the president’s heart, as Trump had never tried to hide the fact that he was a supporter of Israel. The brainstorm team established by the PA after the American elections tried and succeeded in convincing American envoys Greenblatt and Kushner (and, later on, CIA Director Mike Pompeo who befriended Faraj, his counterpart in the PA) that they should take the Palestinian position into account when making decisions that may well affect the Middle East and American interests in the region.
On June 1, Trump signed the waiver that delays for six months any plans to relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem — exactly what previous US presidents have done over the years. The explanation given then for this decision was that Trump wanted to give peace a chance between the sides and that his decision serves American interests. In addition, the American administration was also concerned then, as now, that recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel may well lead to threats on US embassies throughout the Arab world that would endanger the American diplomats serving in them.
The six-month period from the signing of the waiver expired on Dec. 1, with a new waiver expected to be signed shortly. Still, half a year later, the Palestinians understand that Washington’s policy toward Jerusalem has changed. The Palestinian source who spoke with Al-Monitor explained that the information on the subject that reached Ramallah “was worrisome enough to cause us to quickly send Majid Faraj to Washington.” It is not clear if it was Faraj who convinced the Americans to think twice about Trump’s planned step. However, the words uttered by McMaster in a Dec. 3 interview on the Fox network served to calm things down somewhat in Ramallah. According to McMaster, no decision had been made yet regarding the embassy relocation, and in addition, Trump had not even made a final decision to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Still, judging by past experience, the Palestinians know that the president changes his mind every few months. And so they know that they must continue staying on high alert.