Senior Palestinian official: Moving US embassy ‘a declaration of war’ on Muslims
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AnalysisAbbas and Jordan's Abdullah agree on 'series of steps' if Trump orders relocation

Senior Palestinian official: Moving US embassy ‘a declaration of war’ on Muslims

Jibril Rajoub threatens 'consequences' if new president presses ahead with Jerusalem move; other officials say PA could ask UN to suspend Israel’s membership

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Jibril Rajoub at a press conference in Ramallah, February 12, 2014. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Jibril Rajoub at a press conference in Ramallah, February 12, 2014. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

A senior Palestinian official warned Sunday that a move by the Trump administration to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would be perceived as an act of aggression against the entire Muslim world.

“In our opinion moving the embassy to Jerusalem is a declaration of war against Muslims,” Fatah Central Committee member Jibril Rajoub, who also presides over the Palestinian soccer association, told The Times of Israel in an interview.

Rajoub, one of the most powerful figures in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s ruling Fatah party, warned that “it is not inconceivable that the United States will give the Jews the keys to the holy sites in Jerusalem – sites also holy to both Christians and Muslims. If someone among you [Israelis] thinks there won’t be consequences, he is making a grave mistake.”

“We are talking about a dangerous step that won’t bring stability to the ground,” he continued, adding that “it contradicts previous United Nations resolutions and the policy of the United States since 1967.”

“We don’t intend to wave a white flag” in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or US President Donald Trump, he declared.

Last week, Rajoub called Trump a “lunatic” and a “fascist,” attacking his promise to move the embassy to Jerusalem in an interview translated by MEMRI.

On Sunday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said talks had begun on moving the embassy, but seemed to indicate an actual move could be a long time away. “We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject,” he said in a statement.

US President Donald Trump speaks during the swearing-in of the White House senior staff at the White House on January 22, 2017, in Washington, DC. (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)
US President Donald Trump speaks during the swearing-in of the White House senior staff at the White House on January 22, 2017, in Washington, DC. (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)

The statement contrasted with reports over the last several weeks that the announcement of the move could come as early as this week, but also confirmed that the administration intends to at least entertain the plan, despite warnings from the international community that it could significantly ramp up tensions in the volatile region.

Spicer’s statement came about an hour before Trump and Netanyahu held their first phone conversation since Trump became president Friday, with the president inviting Netanyahu to visit next month. Neither the White House nor the Prime Minister’s Office made any mention of the embassy move in statements sent out following the phone call.

Rajoub’s comments echoed statements made by other officials in the PA and Fatah, as well as declarations by leaders in the Arab world, including in states that are considered moderate and have relations with Israel.

One such country, Jordan, a key player in the saga over the potential embassy move, has already said such a step would be “crossing a red line.” The ruling Hashemite dynasty in Jordan sees itself as the protector of the holy Muslim sites in Jerusalem, in particular the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which its stewards in the Islamic Waqf administer.

Thus, Amman asserts that if the new US administration follows through with its promise to move the embassy, it will constitute a direct attack on its authority in Jerusalem and its status at the city’s holy sites.

Jordan’s King Abdullah met with Abbas in Amman on Sunday to discuss the issue. According to Israel Radio, Abbas asked Abdullah to help establish a direct line of communication between the PA and the administration in light of growing anxiety regarding the embassy move.

King Abdullah II of Jordan, left, welcomes Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after his arrival at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan, in March, 2013. (AP Photo/ Raad Adayleh)
King Abdullah II of Jordan, left, welcomes Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after his arrival at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan, in March, 2013. (AP Photo/ Raad Adayleh)

Following the meeting, Abbas said that he and Abdullah agreed upon “a series of steps we’ll take if the US moves the embassy to Jerusalem,” without elaborating.

A Palestinian official told Israel Radio after the meeting that if Trump gives the go-ahead to the embassy move, the PA will turn to the United Nations General Assembly to request a suspension of Israel’s UN membership.

On Monday, a spokesman for the Jordanian government said that unspecified contacts were taking place to safeguard the kingdom’s role as caretaker of the Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, and declared that Israel, as an occupying power, has no right to make unilateral changes in areas it had taken by force.

Saudi Arabia has also warned of the consequences that will result from moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel that any step by the Americans and Israelis to move the embassy to Jerusalem will likely have dramatic consequences. According to the officials, the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization has already decided that if the move goes through it will renounce its recognition of Israel, as well as in practice its recognition of the Oslo Accords.

On Monday, the PLO leadership is expected to meet in order to deliberate the possibility the embassy will indeed by moved, as well as its response to such a step. “No one will try and no one can demand from people to act with restraint. No one will try to stop the demonstrations on the ground against a step like this,” the officials said.

Pressure builds toward a planned outburst

If a decision to move the embassy is made, Fatah will try to lead the demonstrations on the ground in order to prevent its rival Hamas from “stealing the show.”

But to a great extent Israel’s concern should not be a spontaneous eruption on the ground, but rather an organized outburst, since the PA and Fatah – together with Arab states like Jordan and Saudi Arabia – have already outlined a clear plan of resistance.

Thus, in order to prevent mass protests and an outbreak of violence, Israel will need the assistance of the PA and Jordan, although it is doubtful they will be forthcoming in offering their help. Israel will be dependent to a great extent on the goodwill of the PA to preserve the prevailing quiet, even though the PA will have little interest in doing so in light of the particularly dramatic and troublesome manner in which Palestinians will interpret an embassy move.

A Palestinian man walks past the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound before the Friday prayer in Jerusalem's Old City on January 13, 2017. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)
A Palestinian man walks past the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound before the Friday prayer in Jerusalem’s Old City on January 13, 2017. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

Still, there were some voices among the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah that interpreted the announcement from the White House that more time is needed to implement the decision as an indication that Washington does not want move forward too quickly with the move. They perceive Trump’s ostensible hesitance as the result of Israel’s strong push to follow through with it.

In any case, the coming months are expected to be particularly eventful in regards to an embassy move. An Arab League summit is scheduled to take place in March in Amman, and as host, Jordan is expected to lead a hawkish stance against it.

Prior to the summit, a meeting between the Jordanian king and Trump is expected to take place, during which Abdullah will likely try and convince the US president to not push forward with the move.

A month later, at the end of April, former US president Barack Obama’s waiver of the Jerusalem Embassy Act – a 1995 law that mandated the US embassy be moved to Jerusalem — will expire, as did every previous six-month waiver of his predecessors.

Owing to Trump’s unpredictable nature, no one is sure whether he will stick with precedent and sign the waiver or not. However, one thing is certain: until then, the pressure will continue to build.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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