As South Africa’s ruling party decided this week that the South African embassy in Tel Aviv should be downgraded, it stood with the balance of forces worldwide that are outraged at Israel’s continued violation of international law and UN resolutions.
The decision, which will inform the country’s foreign policy, is largely a symbolic one to send a message that the continuation of settlement construction on occupied Palestinian land, the diversion of 93% of Palestinian water resources to illegal settlements, and the attempts to make occupied East Jerusalem the permanent capital of Israel are unacceptable.
President Donald Trump’s recent decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem in violation of UN resolutions that the city should be the capital of both Israel and Palestine, the details of which are supposed to be left to final status negotiations, made the need for such a message all the more pressing.
Following Trump’s announcement protests broke out in capitals around the world, including in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan and Iran. Governments in Europe and elsewhere condemned the move, as did the UN Secretary General.
King Abdullah II of Jordan condemned the US decision on Jerusalem saying, “Any measures that alter the legal and historical status of Jerusalem are null and void.” Jordan’s Minister of State called on everyone to go out on the streets in protest at the US decision.
But strangely, although perhaps not unexpectedly, the criticism of Trump’s move was largely muted in the Gulf states, the monarchies of which have been all too keen to strengthen their alliance with the Trump administration. Instead of downgrading relations with Tel Aviv, Bahrain ordered its citizens in Jordan not to join in protests against Trump’s decision, barred any such protests at home, and sent a delegation to visit Jerusalem. In January Bahrain will host a delegation of Israeli businessmen in order to strengthen trade relations.
According to reports from Alaraby, the Saudi palace ordered media outlets in the kingdom not to focus too much attention on Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It was reported that notices were sent to the bosses of newspapers, TV and radio stations, ordering them to avoid giving Trump’s decision much airtime, but instead to take aim at Iran and other regional countries. The Saudi embassy in Jordan also warned Saudi citizens not to participate in protests and demonstrations against Trump’s decision.
It is no wonder that the anger of the Saudi public towards Trump’s announcement failed to make the headlines or was even expressed vocally given the clampdown at an official level. The Saudi palace could have never gotten away with publicly endorsing Trump’s move, but the only official criticism seemed to be a statement by King Salman calling Trump’s announcement “unjustified and irresponsible.”
It is an open secret that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) has been pushing an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan drafted by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Sources close to Mahmoud Abbas told the New York Times that MBS has pressured Abbas to accept the terms of the peace plan which is heavily tilted in favor of the Israelis. The NYT reported from multiple sources how MBS told Abbas to accept the terms or make way for someone who will.
The proposal backed by MBS supposedly grants Abu Dis, a town southeast of Jerusalem as the future capital of Palestine, instead of occupied East Jerusalem. The plan allegedly determines that the majority of the settlements in the West Bank will remain, and there will be no right of return.
Even though Saudi Arabia has no official ties with Israel, in an interview with the Saudi owned Arabic news website Elaph, the Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz recently issued an invitation to MBS to visit Israel, and asked him to officially invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Riyadh. The same website has also published an interview with the Israeli Defence Force Chief of Staff and Minister of Intelligence.
In Egypt, the government of military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has played a balancing act in these developments– allowing public condemnation of Trump’s move, but clamping down on protests and demonstrations, and in many instances refusing to issue security permits for demonstrations to be held. Many demonstrators against Trump’s decision ended up being forcibly dispersed and detained, including journalists.
In their own region the Palestinians are waging a lonely struggle, with public sentiment in support of their cause being muzzled by undemocratic and authoritarian governments at every turn. On Tuesday Abbas is due to travel to Riyadh in order to discuss Trump’s decision, but in all likelihood he will be put under immense pressure to accept the terms of a peace deal now backed by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
It is a deal the Palestinian leadership will never accept, and the rest of the world does not expect them to.
* Ebrahim is Independent Media's Group Foreign Editor