A Wrong Move at the Worst Time

January 26, 2017

It has been almost twenty-five years since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. President Clinton said at the time that the peace of the brave was within reach. Yet, a final settlement remains as elusive as ever. Israeli-Palestinian relations have increasingly come to be characterized by words “repression”, “intifada”, “incitement”, “terrorism”, “stabbing”, “rocket fire”, “bombing” and “civilian casualties”. Contrary to initial optimism the Arab spring has brought chaos instead of democracy to the region. Over the last five years the Syrian conflict has become world’s focal point of attention, more because of the diverse interests involved than the enormity of human suffering. Achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace on the basis of the two-state vision has taken a back seat. President Obama’s and Secretary Kerry’s efforts to energize the talks have failed causing disappointment in Washington and beyond. EU countries have upped their criticism of the prime minister and his government. At the end of the year, UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2334 condemning Israel’s settlement policy. And on January 15, France hosted an international conference, attended by seventy nations who underlined their commitment to the two-state solution. Israeli government did not attend and remained defiant.
At the present juncture, reasons underlying the growing interest the West has taken in progress towards the two-state solution transcend the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Surely, everyone is supportive of meaningful talks but the West, particularly the Europeans now have more in mind. In his Cairo speech of June 4, 2009 President Obama had called for a new beginning with the Islamic world. Sadly, eight years later, the West has come to regard “jihadism” and “violent extremism” as serious security threats. During his testimony before the US Senate Mr. Tillerson said that he would “support Muslims who reject radical Islam in all its forms”. Nonetheless, the question how this is going to be done remains. Thus, under the present circumstances, Israeli-Palestinian peace or at least some progress towards a final settlement is seen, more than ever before, as the most meaningful message that would resonate with Middle East masses and blunt the appeal of radical ideologies. Everybody knows that Israeli-Palestinian peace is not around the corner but no one wants to see the prospect to sink into oblivion.
President Trump’s campaign promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, his statements on relations with Israel and remarks by his UN envoy Nikki Haley have conveyed a different message. As a result, last Tuesday Jerusalem City Council approved 556 new housing units in East Jerusalem. Two days later, 5,500 housing units in West Bank settlements were announced. In brief, an emboldened Netanyahu government has defied UN Security Council Resolution 2334 which has reaffirmed that “the establishment of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace”.
The US, under the Obama administration, strived for eight years to achieve some progress towards Israeli-Palestinian peace and finally, venting pent-up frustration, refrained from vetoing Resolution 2334. A major policy reversal by the Trump administration on such a long-standing issue will not be well-received either by the international community including Washington’s friends and allies or the members of the UN Security Council. Regardless of who is in the White House, it will lead to questions regarding the consistency of US policies and the credibility of the UN Security Council of which the US is a leading member.
A decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem as promised by President Trump during the election campaign will only make the situation worse. The question of Jerusalem has always been high on the agenda of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The Organization was established upon a decision of the historical summit which took place in Rabat in September 1969 as a reaction to the fire at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Indeed, the world is yet to witness one step from the OIC to end Middle East’s current sectarian strife. But steps to challenge Jerusalem’s status quo in its multiple dimensions may start another fire and compel the OIC to act. Looking at its performance, proponents of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem may argue that neither the OIC nor its member states are capable of making a difference anyway. Perhaps, other than creating common ground between Iran and Saudi Arabia to say the least. Actually, this would be a positive regional development only if it were to happen for a good reason like ending region’s proxy wars. More important than OIC member states’ individual or collective reaction, however, would be the huge opportunity created for Deash, its likes and radical ideologies to use such a move to increase their appeal. This would serve nobody’s interest including the US and Israel.
When I was received by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on March 13, 2002 in his office at the Knesset to deliver a written message from his Turkish counterpart Bulent Ecevit, he had welcomed me to “Jerusalem, the undivided and eternal capital of Israel”. This is the Israeli position. The international community has a different position. Nobody is happy but this is the status quo.
True friends of Israel in the Trump administration and beyond should continue to caution against a move that would mark a dramatic departure from long-standing policy, no different than stirring up a hornets’ nest. With the negative consequences of the invasion of Iraq becoming clearer every passing day, Washington needs to avoid another misstep which would further complicate its relations with the region.

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