US President Donald Trump’s announcement, in early December, that the United States would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, by moving its embassy to the historic city, was yet another salvo from the volatile and unpredictable US president, who is developing a track record for ignoring the delicacies and sensitivities of global diplomacy.
The action is not wholly unprecedented. Successive US presidents, including his predecessor Barack Obama, have publicly stated that Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel, but have stopped short of recognising it as such. All embassies, who have diplomatic ties with Israel, maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv.
President Trump’s decision was received with dismay by European leaders and the Muslim world reacted with anger. Street protests erupted in Pakistan, as well as other Muslim majority countries.
Referred to as Al Quds Al Sharif by the Muslim world, the status of Jerusalem has remained one of the thorniest issues in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict that successive peace negotiations have been unable to tackle. Both Israel and Palestinians lay claim to the city.
During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, West Jerusalem was annexed by Israel and East Jerusalem was captured and taken by Jordan. In the 1967 war, Jordan lost East Jerusalem to Israel, along with other key territories, leaving it with the status of “occupied.”
In reaction to Trump’s abrupt decision, Turkish President Recip Tayyab Erdogan called for an “extraordinary summit” of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul, which, as usual, failed to reach any consensus on a powerful reaction to the crisis.
“We reject and condemn the US Administration’s unlawful statement regarding the status of Al Quds. . . . Just like the fact that Israel’s decision to annex Al Quds and its actions and practices therewith are never accepted, we declare that this statement is identically null and void from the point of view of conscience, justice and history. We invite all members of the UN, the EU and the international community to remain committed to the status of Al Quds and all related UN Resolutions,” reads the very ordinary declaration of the extraordinary summit.
And then the weak tap on the wrist for President Trump: “We invite the Trump Administration to reconsider its unlawful decision that might trigger chaos in the region and to rescind its mistaken step.”
With this shallow declaration, the voice of the Muslim world, quietly acquiesced to one of the world’s greatest illegal land-grabs in history, laying waste to the blood and tears shed by Palestinians living under occupation for decades.
The greatest weakness of the Muslim world has always been the fact that the oil-rich, Gulf Arab states have rarely put their money where their mouths are. Even a hint of oil embargoes would have taken the world by storm. While most Muslim countries do not have diplomatic ties with Israel, each and every one of them has diplomatic and business ties with the United States. But there was not even a vague reference, in the statement, to other options that could have been exercised. Even a symbolic boycott of American products was apparently deemed impossible.
The leadership of the Muslim world remains strangely out of synch with the will of its people. Muslims the world over recognised Trump’s action for what it is – riding roughshod over the Palestinian cause and rule of law.
Trump’s reckless decision has violated international law and United Nations resolutions. It has gravely undermined the delicate peace process.
UN Resolution 242, later buttressed by UN Resolution 338, called for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” . . . “respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”
From the first Camp David talks in 1979, to the 1991 Madrid peace talks, the issue of Palestinian statehood was left equally uncertain, despite the fact that the Palestinian State was declared in November 1988 in Tunis.
It has taken decades to reach the point where the concept of two-nation states was acknowledged and accepted by Israel and other players in the region. The Oslo Peace Agreement of 1993 resulted in a direct agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, represented by the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Its importance was that there was finally mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, but Oslo set aside the issue of Jerusalem to address at a later stage.
US President George W. Bush became the first US president to call for a Palestinian state in June 2002. Since then, successive peace plans and roadmaps have foundered, usually resulting in renewed Israeli attacks on Gaza and the West Bank.
Nearly every US President has sought to go down in history as the president who brokered peace in the Middle East, but all have stayed away from breaching the heart of the matter – the status of Jerusalem. Instead, they sought to apply pressure on Israel to freeze construction in occupied territory or ended up fire-fighting as the region lurched from one heart-breaking war to another. The Israeli attacks in Gaza and the West Bank are not even cited as wars, despite the horrendous loss of life and damage to the infrastructure amid destruction of Palestinian lives and homes.
The status of Jerusalem was first laid out in the UN General Assembly resolution 181 (II) on November 29, 1947, prior to the formal creation of Israel. It very clearly sought the creation of a special status for the city, suggesting it would be a separate entity to be governed by a UN Trusteeship Council. Its status as an international city, with right of access by people of all faiths is stated clearly and unambiguously. The city is home to sacred sites for Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Subsequent events led to a de facto partitioning of Jerusalem into east and west, as war swirled around the region. By now, it has been tacitly accepted that West Jerusalem would serve as the Israeli capital and East Jerusalem will be the Palestinian capital. But in announcing that “facts on the ground” were behind his decision, President Trump did not specify West Jerusalem. He further made no mention of a Palestinian state or its future capital. Instead, he presented a ham-fisted decision, undoing the work of generations to determine an equitable resolution.
And tragically, it seems the Muslim world represented by the OIC has swallowed this unilateral decision with a minor whimper. The only strong words have come from Turkey, Iran and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Why then, has President Donald Trump chosen to strike at the very heart of the conflict? A knee-jerk reaction echoing around the world has been to cite the pressure of the “Jewish lobby.” But it would be dangerous to accept simplistic answers when trying to understand the actions of the 45th President of the United States. The Jewish population in the US is not President Trump’s voter base, though there are indeed some wealthy Jewish Republican Party supporters, including business magnate Sheldon Adelson, who single-handedly donated an estimated $25 million to Trump’s election campaign last year alone.
Trump’s support base is drawn from the Christian alt-right and American analysts also believe Christian Zionists have played a significant role in triggering Trump’s decision. Evangelical Christians make up the biggest pro-Israel bloc in the US. Support for Israel is stronger among American evangelicals than it is even among American Jews. According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 82 percent of white evangelicals think God gave Israel to the Jewish people.
The Christian Zionists await the Biblical prophecy of the Second Coming of Christ and support Jerusalem being in Jewish hands.
But President Trump has dangerously tilted the balance of future peace negotiations. By recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he has ruled himself out as a fair and impartial broker for further negotiations and lost any limited trust the Palestinians may have had in his ability to negotiate a settlement.
It remains unclear whether the White House considered the wider ramifications of the decision beyond the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The decision to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital is a fact that will be used by extremists to prove US ill-intentions. The Palestinian cause has always been a trigger factor for Muslims, but now will sadly be misused by those who will cite Palestinian suffering to further their own agendas.
By failing to take an aggressive stand against the US decision, the OIC – ironically formed for the Palestinian cause – has once again failed the very people they are supposed to represent. No major secret then, that American dollars are worth more than Palestinian lives and rights to Arab leaders.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians who are the most dispossessed of the earth along with the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, have been thrust further away from their dream of regaining their homeland and having their rights recognised by the world. The peace process stands derailed. Will it ever get back on the right track? A settlement forced upon them would hardly be a peaceful resolution to a conflict that has raged for decades.