The Middle East is a powder keg which could burst any time
At the last count 60 Palestinians have died in Gaza from Israeli military fire on civilians who gathered in Gaza border to vent their anger at the US embassy transfer to Jerusalem. 60 miles away at Jerusalem, about 600 people, including President Trump’s daughter and son-in-law accompanied by Prime Minister Netanyahu, cheerily inaugurated the new embassy, thoroughly unconcerned about the deadly happenings in Gaza.
But this is all expected -- both the celebration of the US embassy move to Israel, and protests by the Palestinians against the move which effectively puts the seal of approval by the US on Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The US embassy transfer to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv is an action that was delayed by all previous US presidents, because this was an important leverage that the US had been using to influence both Israel and Palestine in the peace negotiations between the two.
Although Israel had declared Jerusalem its capital since the founding of the Jewish state, most Western countries including the US did not establish their embassies in Jerusalem and operated from Tel Aviv instead. However, after US Congress passed a resolution in 1995 to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, past US presidents have delayed the implementation of the resolution for reasons stated earlier.
But the situation changed dramatically since Donald Trump took office and famously vowed to implement his campaign promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.
The US embassy move that occurred this week is more technical than real, since the action so far consists of renaming the already existing US consulate in Jerusalem as the US Embassy and the physical relocation of about 10% of embassy staff from Tel Aviv.
But this is enough to demonstrate to Israel and the Palestinians how committed the US is to Israel and its needs. It may take several years for a total relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, but this symbolic action has already blown into smithereens three decades of efforts by past US presidents to mediate between two feuding parties for a durable peace in the area.
President Trump did not have any qualms about abandoning years of US role as a peace broker by this decision, because he was placating that segment of the population that advocates a more blatantly pro-Israel foreign policy and forceful defense of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s bellicose attitude to Palestine.
Why would Trump move the US embassy and thus jettison years of US effort for peace in the region? Trump does not have any personal loyalty to either Netanyahu or Israel. The Republican Party as a whole was not urging Trump to move the embassy, and definitely not the Democrats. The only visibly happy groups were the US evangelicals, who suddenly seem to have embraced Trump as a bold leader.
President Trump’s decision to go all out with Israel has more to do with his running feud with Iran and overall approach to the Middle East. From his prism, Trump and his fellow comrades in arms in Israel view Iran as the mortal enemy of Israel, a threat that has to be permanently deterred.
Netanyahu had urged his US allies much before Trump came to his presidency not to enter in any deal with Iran over its nuclear program. Indeed, one Trump’s major vows during the campaign was to shred the Iran nuclear deal (which he did couple of weeks ago), just not to please Israel but also to drive a wedge among Muslim nations in the Middle East.
He did not have to go far to seek. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies had viewed Iran’s Middle East ambitions with alarm aside from their sectarian differences. Saudi Arabia never warmed to president Obama because of his more realistic views of Iran and pursuit of the nuclear deal with support from European nations.
President Trump used this Arab hostility towards Iran, and with sweetheart deals with Saudi Arabia on military hardware sales he won Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates to his side. In this renewed handshake (which had been there since the 60s when the US had assured the Saudi dynasty of physical protection), an understanding was reached on Saudis turning the other way in the Palestine dispute. In fact, most recently in a meeting with Jewish Groups in New York Prince Mohammed Bin Salman the crown prince of Saudi Arabia had rebuked the Palestinians for their refusal to come to terms with Israel.
The bottom line is that the current deadly protest in Gaza by the Palestinians is not likely to generate much support from the Arab nations. Trump and his administration have decided that in the Middle East, Israel will and should become the dominant power, and the way to do it is by stopping Iran with support from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates.
Israelis can do whatever they want to stifle the protests because they know its Arab neighbours are not going to stand in arms to support the Palestinians in their demand for a Jerusalem that the Palestinians once hoped to make their capital too. In fact, going forward, Gaza may turn into a worse open-air jail for nearly two million residents than it so far has been.
The Palestinians can only hope for a condemnation from other moderate European nations and other Muslim countries. But these countries are also limited by the realities of international politics where the world’s only superpower has decidedly cast its vote in favour of Israel.
In a UN meeting on May 15 eight EU countries tabled a resolution asking Israel to stop using excessive force -- the best they could do in view of strong US opposition to raise and discuss this in the Security Council. So, for now that is the best international support the doomed people of Gaza will get, and meanwhile, more people will get killed as they try to show their anger throwing stones at a most modern army.
The Middle East is fast becoming a powder keg which may burst any time and usher the area into an uncontrollable conflagration. But the powers that rule the region either do not care, or they think they will escape this conflagration.
History does not support this complacency. When people rise, the powers that oppress them fall. We hope all powers that have vital interest in the region wake up to this reality and stop this mindless violence with real and lasting solutions.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.