What a US embassy in Jerusalem means to Palestinians

New comments by US officials reiterating a pledge by President Donald Trump to move the country’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem reflect the futility of peace negotiations, Palestinians say.

US Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday that Trump is “actively” exploring “when and how” to relocate the embassy.

He made the remarks while attending a United Nations event marking the 70th anniversary of a vote for the partition of Palestine, which aided Israel in establishing a Jewish state.

During his election campaign last year, Trump repeatedly promised to move the embassy and recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

In June, however, like his predecessors, Trump signed a six-month waiver to delay the relocation, which would have complicated US efforts to resume the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The White House said at the time that the question is “not if that move happens, but only when”.

The waiver expires on December 1, and the Trump administration has not yet announced whether it plans to renew it for an additional six months.

The controversial pledge, if implemented, would make the US the first country to have its embassy in Jerusalem – currently, all such diplomatic missions are located in Tel Aviv.

It would also overturn decades of international consensus on Jerusalem, a highly-contested city, half of which was occupied and annexed by Israel following the 1967 War.

“If the relocation happens, it would be the first of its kind and would reaffirm to Israel that Jerusalem is ‘one and unified’,” Zakaria Odeh, director of the Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera.

“It is a very dangerous step,” he added. “It would nullify any plans for future negotiations [on the conflict].”

Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its “united” capital, and its annexation of East Jerusalem effectively put the entire city under de-facto Israeli control. The Palestinians, however, see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

The international community, including the US, does not recognise Israel’s jurisdiction and ownership of the city.

Palestinians say that moving the embassy would prejudge one of the most sensitive issues in the conflict – the status of Jerusalem – and undermine the US’ status as an honest mediator.

Israel to expand illegal settlement in East Jerusalem

Earlier this year, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had warned against the embassy’s move, in an official letter addressed to Trump.

It would have a “disastrous impact on the peace process, on the two-state solution and on the stability and security of the entire region”, the letter read. 

Under the proposed 1947 UN Partition Plan, the city was meant to be internationally administered, due to its importance to the three Abrahamic religions. But, in 1948, Zionist forces seized the western half of the city and declared the area as part of what became Israel.

‘Blackmail campaign’

Khalil Shaheen, a Ramallah-based analyst, described Pence’s remarks as part of a “blackmail campaign”, arguing that the US is using the embassy as a tool to pressure the Palestinians. 

“If the US relocates the embassy to Jerusalem, it will determine the city’s fate by recognising it as the capital of the occupying state, before even embarking on the peace negotiations it’s trying to achieve,” Shaheen told Al Jazeera.

“This will destroy any potential of establishing an independent Palestinian state through US negotiations – which is very dangerous,” he added.

Shaheen also argued the that US government is trying to draw out a path for the region at the expense of Palestinians, while attempting to force new conditions on their leadership before announcing its own plan for the peace process.

“We are witnessing the articulation of Israeli positions, but through American mouths,” said Shaheen, referencing the “Zionist” views of US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

“They belong to the most right-wing orientation in Israel,” he added.

Amani Khalifa, a Jerusalem-based activist, argued that the relocation might be a crucial political move for the diplomats of the Palestinian Authority (PA), but not for ordinary Palestinians in Jerusalem.

“To regular people, it doesn’t really matter if the embassy stays in Tel Aviv or is relocated to Jerusalem,” she told Al Jazeera.

“But this move would make it clear to the rest of the world that there is no real sovereignty, and that the PA has no say over anything that happens in Jerusalem,” added Khalifa.

“This has been the situation since 1967 – so this may be a good thing for Palestinians, to leverage on the fact that the occupation is real, and the move would act as proof.”

Referencing the expansion of Israel’s illegal settlement project and its house demolition policies in East Jerusalem, Khalifa described the move merely as an additional “step” that Israel would be taking to fulfill its objective of making Jerusalem its “undivided” capital.

“So, it’s really part of the wider context that started with the annexation,” she said.

Jerusalem’s Old City: Concern over Jewish expansion