image of jerusalem 2017

Jerusalem: A City for Two Peoples & Three Religions?
A couple of days ago, I was at Wogan House in London doing a round of twelve robin-style BBC interviews. I discussed the recent decision by President Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as well as his stated intention to move the US embassy - eventually - from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

13 December   |   2017   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

The interviews were with a number of BBC veteran presenters who are not unfamiliar with the issues that pervade the Israeli-Palestinian conflict let alone the broader MENA and Gulf regions. Pushed by their probing questions, I came back time and again to one word that best describes for me the reality of the recognition by President Trump of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. My word was “unnecessary”.

So as someone who has for long been interested in the MENA & Gulf regions, who hails from this volatile region and who has also earned his stripes during many a second-track negotiation, let me share a few observations or deductions.

To my mind, the first question is whether President Trump undertook his decision out of conviction. I think not, since my observations over one year have convinced me that this president likes nothing more than creating chaos. He creates uncertainty by going against orthodoxy, believing perhaps that this allows him to negotiate better deals. He wants to please his supporters who love to see him overthrow the established order and show himself as a bold guy.

This is perhaps one reason why he refused to heed the advice of his Secretary of State and his Defence Secretary (reminiscent somewhat of the late Lyndon B Johnson with Dean Rusk), or of the US allies worldwide. He chose instead to break with US policy by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and preparing to transfer the US embassy to Jerusalem. In so doing, Donald J Trump believes he fulfilled a campaign promise and appeared as a man of his word. In the process, he delighted his evangelical electorate and wealthy pro-Israel donors. He was not overly worried that this might trigger a wave of violence in the Middle East or else dismantle further any hopes for an irenic settlement.

Fine, a reader might suggest when reading this article, but why now? After all, he can please his electorate and funders - ultraconservatives, Christian evangelicals and some pro-Israel lobbies - anytime. Perhaps! But I would argue that this presidential statement could also coincidentally distract Americans from "the Russian affair". Besides, PM Benyamin Netanyahu is equally beset by several judicial inquiries that challenge his hold on power, and this statement will help consolidate his political position too. But what about other concrete factors that challenge this line of reasoning?

  • Let me overlook the ethical and moral dimensions of this decision and remind readers instead of the host of International law instruments, Resolutions and Conventions that militate against such a unilateral decision. Are we simply expected to abjure the various UNSC Resolutions that define East Jerusalem as lands that were occupied by Israel during the 1967 war? Are we meant to overlook the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force? Or do we become judge, jury and executioner as we decide on the fate of other peoples?
  • If this were the new rationale that governs international relations, one could argue that we did not have to act when Iraq occupied Kuwait in 1990, nor should we lobby against the Russian occupation of Crimea, or the various other conflicts bridging the globe. Yet, personal initiatives and whimsical opinions do not constitute jus cogens in International law, nor do they foster a comity of nations.
  • This inept decision will not only inject more violence - whether sporadic or sustained - into the Palestinian territories, across a volatile MENA region or in faraway climes. It will equally play into the hands of radicals who will use this decision by President Trump to claim that the only option available now is armed resistance. In so doing, they will ramp up tensions further and destabilise an already fragile region by turning what is a political conflict into a religious war. Conversely, the moderate voices will be disavowed, cowed further into silence and rendered unable to sustain their efforts for a two-state solution.
  • This decision by President Trump could also widen further the top-down gap between many Arab rulers and the Arab masses unless those leaders show their pan-Arab solidarity with Palestinians by walking the walk rather than merely talking the talk. After all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains willy-nilly a central hub for 350 million Arabs and 1.5 billion Muslims in the world no matter the actions of politicians.
  • In fact, the Arab Spring that started in 2010 struggled to gain freedom and dignity for Arab masses. But the pushback and counter-revolutions were lethal. As a consequence, not only did Palestine fade away somehow from the consciousness of the Arab World, it was replaced by a war against Iran. So many Arab leaders alas no longer define the region in terms of the centrality of Palestine alone but rather in terms of the tug-of-war between some Arab countries and Iran. This shift away from Palestine does not bode well for peace among Israelis and Palestinians, and discourages the two-state solution based on peace, justice and security.
  • Many pundits have argued that President Trump’s decision was largely meant to placate some of the US Evangelical Christian constituencies. This could well be true, since his popularity ratings have slumped considerably and he needs their support not only to survive the various challenges facing his presidency but also in case he decides to run again for a second term. But I am loath to use this term “Evangelical Christians” as an umbrella term that represents all Christian beliefs or theosophy. In fact, an Open Letter by the leaders of the thirteen traditional (Orthodox, Catholic and reform) churches in Jerusalem challenged President Trump’s decisions in stark terms. So did the Middle East Council of Churches that represents all the ecumenical churches across the whole Middle East let alone many Arab Christian theologians. But the best one-sentence challenge to those Evangelical Christians in the USA came from Efrem Smith, co-lead pastor at Bayside Church Midtown in Sacramento (CA). He put it succinctly when he reminded all that “If Christians were meant to pursue political power at any cost, Christ wouldn’t have turned down Satan’s offers in the wilderness”.
  • And going back to politics, the statement by President Trump has dealt a fatal blow to any hopes that the two-state solution remains the viable outcome of a conflict dating back to 1967, to 1948, and even to 1917. Many observers have suggested that the two-state solution is no longer on the table. I would add that the table itself seems to have been swept aside, and the reality of a unitary or binational state is looming as the sole option. In other words, all inhabitants of Israel will become citizens who would exercise their fundamental rights - including representation. Is this what Israel wants truly? Is this what Vice President Mike Pence or Jared Kushner want to see emerge from President Trump’s statement?
  • I have often argued that the otiose ‘peace process’ cannot depend only on outside actors - be they the dysfunctional Quartet or the struggling EU that funds many Palestinian projects. It necessitates a drastic show of leadership by Palestinians and Arabs in order to bring it out of cold storage. One such bold move would be for the Palestinian Authority to resolve that it would dismantle its structures and give up any pretence for a virtual state whose president is treated as nothing more than the mayor of a Palestinian city in the West Bank. This would mean that the Geneva Conventions might then be triggered and the financial burden of governing Palestinians would fall back on Israel as the occupier.

Two decades ago, the Latin-rite Catholic patriarch of Jerusalem, HB Michel Sabbah, taught me that this biblical land is one for “two peoples and three religions”. The political waters were muddied further last week, and unnecessarily so. But so long as we do not accept that two peoples with two sets of rights, narratives and aspirations should live next to each other in freedom and with dignity, the struggles that we have witnessed over many decades will continue unabated no matter our statements and no matter the exhaustion of Palestinians living under occupation for fifty years.

So very unnecessary! Will we ever learn?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2017   |   13 December


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