BY: ANDREA GARCIA RODRIGUEZ
On December 6, 2017, US President Donald J. Trump addressed the American people to announce a break with traditional US policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict, specifically the distance previous Administrations took from the conflict. “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality,” said President Trump. According to him, the obvious and the right thing to do would be to have moved the Embassy from Tel Aviv years ago. With the conflicts in the Middle East constantly expanding and contracting, President Trump’s announcement has the potential to set the Middle East on fire – again.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far more complex than what President Trump alone could have assumed. His decision has not only affected the Palestinian people and the question of the legitimacy of the state of Israel, but also the alliances forged over time and the international cosmos built around them. The status quo, though not perdurable, has been the source of relative stability. The future of the region, however, remains uncertain with many international actors adding layers of complexities to the issue at hand. If a solution is to be reached, it will have to be one that takes into account all aspects and narratives involved in the conflict and further attempts to alleviate the grievances put forth by both sides.
A BRIEF HISTORY
The current Israeli-Palestinian territorial reality regarding the longstanding status of Jerusalem was a result of the 1948 and 1967 war. The East Jerusalem – West Jerusalem division resulted as part of an armistice treaty between Israel and Jordan in April 1949 following the guidelines of the November, 1948 ceasefire. However, twenty-one years later, Israel sought to claim sovereignty over the entire city despite international opposition. Resolution 242 of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) urged Israel to withdraw from the territories captured in 1967. The retreat never happened resulting in the UNSC and General Assembly subsequently passing a series of resolutions following Israel’s refusal to withdraw (UNSC resolutions 250, 251, 252, 267 and 271 were issued between 1968 and 1969 only).
Popular voices from academia attempted to develop a solution that took into consideration the sensibilities of all parties and religions. “Jerusalem has always been a construction of the imagination […] Jews, Christians and Muslims have all invested in it their hopes and dreams, their tears and their longing” noted English priest and journalist Giles Fraser. Probably the most notable one from all these voices was Adnan Abu Odeh. A Palestinian by birth, Odeh worked as counselor and political analyst to the Jordanian Government wherein he participated as senator between 1998 and 1999 and as Jordan’s permanent representative to the UN.
In the 1992 Spring issue of Foreign Affairs, Abu Odeh published “Two Capitals in an Undivided Jerusalem”, an article that offered a unique take on the issue of Jerusalem. In it, he identified Jerusalem in two distinct ways – the secular and the religious, with the latter part of the city “made holy by God”. With this division in mind, Jerusalem, he argued, offered new opportunities for peace as the man-made city could simultaneously be the Jewish Yerushalayim (ירושלים), the Muslim al-Quds (القدس) and the international container of spirituality, Jerusalem. Even though his assessment was rather utopian, it opened the debate to seek out more creative solutions.
VOICES FROM THE MIDDLE EAST
Contrary to the former academic approach, the decision made by the US Administration on December 6th, 2017 was instead not creative but subversive. The impact of the US’ decision compelled a number of countries to reject the declaration through official statements. Egypt brought the issue to the United Nations Security Council, where it sought the cancellation of unilateral decisions regarding the status of Jerusalem, facing internal pressure as the Egyptian Medical Syndicate along with the Pharmaceutical and Veterinary entities also rebuffed the US’ decision calling for a boycott of pro-Israeli products. Even though the draft did not pass, it achieved great success with the US being the only country to disagree with the composition of the document. Days before the debate on the international forum, regional religious institutions, Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church, condemned the move, refusing to meet with US Vice President Mike Pence, who then postponed his trip to 2018, allegedly due to an impending vote on tax reform in Congress.
This tense scenario was also reproduced in Jordan, a country with an estimated half native Palestinian population, both those holding Jordanian full citizenship and those with refugee status. Jordan as a country remains increasingly dependent on US foreign aid, which totaled $1.3 billion in 2017. At the same time, Jordan plays an important role in the conflict as the custodian of the Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem since the 1994 Peace Treaty with Israel, duly reaffirmed in 2013 after the signing of the Jerusalem Protection Pact. Though Jordan has in the past supported Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, the nature of the state’s relationship with the United States is bound to play a role in how the issue is navigated by regional actors.
Saudi Arabia is the other state likely to play a large role in the debate over Jerusalem given that it hosts Muslim holy sites (Mecca and Medina). The Kingdom previously condemned the US’ decision deeming it “unjustified and irresponsible”. However, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have a vested interest in the region accepting the peace plan put forth by Saudi Arabia. The Prince is known for his willingness to modernize the country thus being the protagonist of purges to pave his way to power, involving members of the Saudi elite and members of the Royal Family alike as well as some groundbreaking decisions regarding women. Despite backing the Palestinian people’s claims towards the status of Jerusalem – and hence, aligning itself with the rest of Muslim countries – the noise Saudi Arabia generated has been less than expected, even withholding from mentioning “Jerusalem”. It does seem that a shift in Saudi Arabia foreign policy is about to happen, provided that the Kingdom has sufficient foreign support. Since the election of Donald Trump as President, the Saudi Kingdom has showed signs of implicit support for Israel and the US’ peace plan for the Middle East.
Crown Prince bin Salman even visited Tel Aviv in September 2017, although it has not been confirmed by the Crown. Less than two months after his visit, Israeli Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot suggested sharing intelligence with Riyadh to stop the growing Iranian influence in the region. The same year a railway connecting the port of Haifa and the Gulf via Saudi Arabia through Jordan and the West Bank was proposed, and secret contact was reported by the Israeli Energy Ministry under the pretense of a common enemy. There are many opportunities for a Saudi Arabia – Israel partnership given that both countries share common interests such as the need to counterbalance the presence of Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah. Additionally, given that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that is in possession of nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia has to find a way to collaborate with Israel if it wants to become a true regional hegemon. Ultimately, the Crown Prince intends to inaugurate a new era that would see the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia be the architect of the future of the Middle East. As such, Saudi Arabia and its relations with Israel will play a key role in determining the future of Israel and Palestine within the context of the Middle East.
BEYOND THE MIDDLE EAST
At the international level, on December 13, 2017 the Organization of Islamic Cooperation celebrated an extraordinary meeting in Istanbul, where member states strongly criticized the US’ move. In Article 8 of its Charter, the OIC established full support and empowerment of “the Palestinian people to exercise their right to self-determination and establish their sovereign State with Al-Quds Al-Sharif [Jerusalem] as its capital, while safeguarding its historic and Islamic character as well as the Holy places therein”.
The resulting declaration condemns the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel by the US and calls upon “every person of common sense and conscience” to stand for the Palestinian cause. It further identifies the need to recognize Palestine as a state with East Jerusalem as its capital reaffirming their commitment to a two-state solution.
On the other hand, the European Union has supported the arrangement in which there would be a place for both Palestinians and Israelites in the Holy Land, where Jerusalem would be shared by both in accordance with international law. Although Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to meet the European leaders to gain the confidence of European states, he came back to Israel without the support he sought to find.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has never been a conflict purely based on religion, for people from different faiths coexisted prior to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. It is, indeed, also a clash between two different political aspirations materialized in an already conflict-ridden area with intense symbolic significance. The nationalist sentiment of the 19th century that caused two World Wars was brought to the land of Palestine. The move was felt as an intrusion, which was undoubtedly disruptive of the routine of the local people, and it is sometimes utilized by the right-wing in the Knesset and the political parties less tolerant with the idea of the multiethnic composition of Israel. Yahad and Jewish Home explicitly reject any territorial concessions to the Palestinians, while some other parties – even within the Government coalition, such as the UTJ – do not have a plan.
The passive attitude of the international community since 1948, and the lack of real commitment towards peace in the disputed territories has helped shape the identity of the communities based in Palestine, further aggravating the conflict as time passes. Thus, the lack of action from the international community has created an unsustainable project for the future command of the Holy Land. Hence, action taken by both sides cannot only be reproachable, but also respectful and comprehensive taking into account the different narratives of the nations that live therein. Any solution that is developed must be based on the recognition of two different bodies with different traditions. Such a solution should also put aside all religious reclamations by ensuring that in sharing a past, they can share a future. For if there is to be real peace, the essence of what exists must be reconsidered; the Jewish character of Israel must create more flexible boundaries to ensure everyone can be well integrated. The Palestinian Authority must find new leadership that ends the struggle of power between Fatah and Hamas, and searches for support within Palestine and Israel, not only among the general international community. The status of Jerusalem can only be discussed once a true atmosphere of respect has been assembled.
Regional and international arrangements that urge the peace process to move faster damage the status quo, creating chaos– such as the potential Saudi Arabian foreign policy shift, which could contribute to the disintegration of the already fragile political environment. The Middle East is unquestionably the most complex stage to implement new policies; especially ones that are a marked departure from longstanding policy arrangements. Such policy experimentation has the potential to cause irreversible damage to longstanding security arrangements in the region. In light of the cautiousness and integrity needed to find a reasonable solution to this complex problem, Aristotle’s words sound the wisest: “Prudence, as well as moral virtue, determines the complete performance of a man’s proper function: Virtue ensures the rightness of the end we aim at, Prudence ensures the rightness of the means we adopt to gain that end”.
Andrea G. Rodriguez is an international security analyst. She holds a B.A. in International Relations from the Complutense University of Madrid. She has been part of several mobility programs, including at Charles University in Prague, where she studied Geopolitics and International Security, and at the National Taiwan University, where she focused on Asian security issues.
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