- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The White House pushed back Wednesday after representatives from 57 Muslim-majority nations gathered in Turkey to criticize the Trump administration’s policy shift on Jerusalem and demand that the city’s east be recognized as the capital of a “State of Palestine.”

The demand — put forth in Istanbul at an emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — came in response to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and included a harsh assertion by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Washington “from now on” has no role in the Middle East peace process.

Mr. Abbas and others at the summit argued that the Trump administration’s policy moves, including its decision to eventually move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, has irreparably damaged American credibility in the region.

While Mr. Trump steered clear of the issue Wednesday, White House officials shot back at the rhetoric coming out of the OIC conference, saying it was unsurprising and typical of posturing from Arab leaders that “has prevented peace for years.”

One official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity with several news outlets, said the White House remains “hard at work putting together” a peace plan, which the administration will make public “when it is ready and the time is right.”

The official said the plan “will benefit the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.”

Mr. Trump’s announcements on Jerusalem last week broke with decades of international consensus that the city’s final status should be decided in direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The development has since triggered street protests and widespread condemnation across the Middle East and a war of words that seemed to reach new heights on Wednesday.

From Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Palestinians to halt what he called extremist statements. “All of these declarations do not impress us,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who hosted the emergency IOC summit in a bid to unify the Muslim world’s response to the policy shift in Washington, accused Israel in a speech of being “a state of terror” and vowed to “stand up to American bullying.”

“America, you might think you are strong, you might have weapons, nuclear weapons, you might have many aircraft,” Mr. Erdogan said. “But none of this means you are strong. You are only strong if you are right. The U.S. is buttering the bread of fanatics with this decision.”

The comments from the leader of Turkey, a major NATO ally, raised eyebrows among analysts in Washington and spurred outrage among some conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Robert Pittenger, North Carolina Republican, accused the Erdogan government of having been complicit in supporting the Islamic State terrorist group in neighboring Syria in recent years.

“Turkey has been complicit in supporting ISIS with border access for the illicit transport of oil, funding and migrating jihadists as well as providing a safe harbor for Muslim Brotherhood,” Mr. Pittinger wrote in an email to The Washington Times. “Their position against Israel is a formal declaration of their support for Islamic terrorists as well as their opposition to Israel.”

Mr. Abbas, meanwhile, characterized the White House’s policy shift on Jerusalem as “the greatest crime” committed by Washington against Palestinians.

Mr. Erdogan said Turkey would support the creation of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders that were set before the West Bank and Gaza Strip were occupied by Tel Aviv during the Six-Day War.

Collectively, the OIC issued what members called the Istanbul Declaration on “Freedom for al-Quds” — a reference to the Arabic name for Jerusalem — and warned Mr. Trump to reconsider his “unlawful decision that might trigger chaos in the region.”

While more than 20 heads of state from Muslim-majority nations attended the OIC summit, there were indications that some key powers were reluctant to throw their weight behind the declaration. Most notably, Saudi Arabia, which is seen to have a growing back-channel alliance with Israel over mutual animosity the two feel toward Iran, was barely represented in Istanbul.

Riyadh, which plays host to the OIC’s headquarters, reportedly sent only a senior foreign ministry official to the summit. Several other nations, including Egypt, which shares a border with Israel, had their foreign ministers in Istanbul.

Analysts in Washington said Wednesday’s declaration was an unsurprising indication of doubt among many in the Middle East over the Trump administration’s ability to make progress in the peace process.

“If [Palestinians] can expect nothing from this administration, then why continue down the path of peace in hand with the U.S.?” said Nabeel Khoury, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Palestinians and their supporters in the Arab world “have been slapped hard [by the U.S.], and the least they can do is slap back,” Mr. Khoury said.

Others suggested that much of what came out of Istanbul was bluster. The OIC’s declaration, for instance, did not include explicit language calling for a definite ban on U.S. engagement in the peace process — language that had been in earlier drafts of the document, said Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program at the U.S. Institute for Peace.

While the White House has “provoked anger and dismay” among many Muslim nations, Mrs. Kurtzer-Ellenbogen said, the move to omit any outright ban on American involvement lets members “climb back down this tree of completely shutting out the U.S.”

But she added that the clock is ticking for the Trump administration to announce its highly anticipated Middle East peace plan and that growing anti-American sentiment over Jerusalem could damage its prospects. The White House “has not yet connected the dots” between the Jerusalem decision and its designs for peace in the Middle East, Mrs. Kurtzer-Ellenbogen said.

Mr. Trump’s decision on Jerusalem has also sparked renewed terrorist threats by groups such as al Qaeda and Islamic State, which have called on followers to strike the United States and other Western targets in retaliation. U.S. military and diplomatic security services have since ramped up protections of American installations around the world.

Hassan Mneimneh, a senior regional specialist at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, criticized the Trump administration’s handling of the policy move on Jerusalem. Officially naming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital “is not incompatible with what Trump is seeking” in terms of a Middle East peace plan, said Mr. Mneimneh, who added that other nations, most recently Russia, have recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital but noted its borders extend only to the western part of the city.

That delineation has always been taken “in anticipation of east Jerusalem being the capital of a future Palestinian state,” he said.

In contrast, Mr. Trump’s foreign policy aides have remained noncommittal on how far Israeli sovereignty should extend across Jerusalem, saying the decision would have to be one of several thorny issues included in any Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The lack of commitment represents a calculated risk the Trump administration hopes will trigger new peace talks, Mr. Mneimneh said.

At the same time, he said, Mr. Trump’s decision on Jerusalem has handed Iran an opportunity to coalesce growing furor in the Middle East toward advancing Tehran’s interests in the region.

“Iran has weaponized this [Palestinian] question,” Mr. Mneimneh said, adding that Tehran has “latched onto this issue, which they have no real connection to, in order to project hegemony in the region.”

Leaders from the Iran-backed militant organizations Hamas and Hezbollah have seized on the decision as a rallying cry to the Palestinian cause.

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