He may have small hands, but US President Donald Trump appears to have a big foot. And with his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he has shoved it squarely up the part of conventional international Middle East peacemaking diplomacy that never sees the sun.
So far, so good, you might think. Decades of international peacemaking efforts have, after all, failed, as Trump said in his statement, to make peace. What he didn’t add, though, is that it has also largely provided cover for Israel to continue its colonization of occupied territory. And nowhere has Israel done so more egregiously than in Jerusalem itself.
Israel’s main backer in this has long been the United States. And even though almost from the outset, US policy clearly stipulated that settlements are illegal under international law, successive US administrations have only rewarded Israeli settlement building over the past 40 or so years of peace diplomacy with ever greater financial and military aid.
Why not end this charade, one that has done so little to achieve peace and secure justice for wronged parties?
But that would be to misread “art-of-the-deal” Trump whose staff, even while transitioning into the White House, was eagerly lobbying foreign countries on behalf of Israel.
The US president’s decision has little to do with ending any charades and even less to do with justice for the little guy. Just read his speech to AIPAC before he was elected. It is a play for his own pro-Israel right-wing and evangelical base. It is an assertion of US primacy over international legitimacy. It could have repercussions for generations. And it is the culmination of decades of rabid lobbying in Washington that has rendered intelligible debate on Palestine impossible, succeeded in blaming the victim and ensnared most of America’s legislature.
Among these dark Satanic mills
Jerusalem, an ancient city that has been settled for thousands of years, is crucial to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is at the center of both Jewish and Palestinian nationalism. It contains some of the most important Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious sites in the world.
For Muslims, Jerusalem was the first direction of prayer and ought still be a part of the annual pilgrimage enjoined on the faithful. Most of its modern history has been Islamic. In fact, bar a hundred or so years of Christian crusader interjection, the city was under Muslim rule from 637 until the British ousted the Ottomans in 1917 only to create a Palestine mandate and promptly promise European Jews a homeland there.
Those 1,000 years – give or take – of the city’s modern history and the resonance the city holds for Muslims everywhere have been completely ignored in the Trump administration’s formula that simply sees Jerusalem as “the capital the Jewish people established in ancient times” as well as today’s seat of the Israeli government.
And so has international law.
The only internationally agreed formula for the city to date came with the 1947 partition plan that envisaged the city as a seperated body under international administration belonging to neither a Palestinian nor a Jewish state. That is why even the US, until now, has not recognized Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the city – any part of the city.
And it is why international consensus in the context of a two-state solution has been that the city will be divided into two capitals, one in the western part for Israel and one in the east for Palestine, but only in the context of a final and mutually negotiated resolution to the conflict.
That Trump is willing to put all this aside is a testament not only to the strength of pro-Israel lobbying efforts in the US – Trump’s description of Israel as “one of the most successful democracies in the world” is straight out of the AIPAC playbook – but to his commitment to a kind of nationalism that sees power and consensus-building merely as instruments to achieve narrow interests. And the more power one has, the less consensus one needs.
The status of Jerusalem is one of the so-called Palestinian constants – the others being statehood and refugees – that the late Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat invoked after signing what he saw as the ultimate compromise, the 1993 Oslo accords. Those accords saw Palestinians reduced to agitating for statehood on territory Israel occupied in the 1967 War, amounting to 22 percent of historic Palestine, but very definitely including East Jerusalem.
Israel has always had a maximalist position on Jerusalem, however. It unilaterally annexed the whole city immediately after conquering the eastern part in 1967 and has ever since called it its “eternal and undivided” capital. Israel never saw the Oslo accords as a Palestinian compromise and therefore did not seize the opportunity to sign a peace deal with Arafat.
That opportunity has now well and truly passed. Even a leader as pliable as Mahmoud Abbas will find it hard to sell a peace process where one of the three pillars he himself has stipulated has already been removed – and where the one on refugees is widely understood to have been effectively amputated too.
There will be some wriggle room. Trump has not committed himself to any specific geographic part of Jerusalem as being Israel’s capital. He has not ruled out a future division of the city. He will continue to sign the waiver stopping the US embassy move for another six months and, in practice, nothing will change for a while, perhaps even for the remainder of his presidency.
Abbas has staked his entire leadership on a peace process and may well cling to these broken shards of hope, hands bleeding, hoping that Trump can now wring what in Washington is known as “concessions” from Israel (otherwise known as adherence to international law).
Yet even Abbas must see that Trump’s actions have in effect spelled the end for any hope of a negotiated two-state solution. Even if it is simply a gambit to shore up support at home, and even if Trump has no intention of actually moving the embassy, only of being seen to fulfill a campaign promise, the damage is done.
A threshold has been passed. Now no US president – not in a climate where the pro-Israel lobby in America is so influential that in June a resolution celebrating the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Jerusalem passed the US Senate by 90 votes to zero – can walk this back.
Six months before he was elected president, Trump gave a speech to the lobbyists’ lobby, AIPAC. It was a campaign speech, intended to curry favor with a specific demographic. But he has since proven good to his word. He promised he would tear up the Iran nuclear deal. He has begun the process.
He promised he would move the US embassy. He has now taken the first step (as he was keen to point out on Wednesday).
He also asserted that the Palestinians “must come to the table knowing that the bond between the United States and Israel is absolutely, totally unbreakable.” While few Palestinians doubted this anyway, some held out hope that simply through the force of moral persuasion, sympathy for the underdog, legality and in the interests of international order, someone, somewhere in Washington would listen, eventually.
That can no longer be the case. No one, not Abbas or all those Palestinian decision makers and politicians who genuinely advocate or simply have vested interests in a peace process, can now seriously believe or pretend there is anything but hush money to be gained from Washington.
What then? Turn to Europe? Unlikely to be of much use. The Arab world? Ditto. Unity with Hamas would seem to take on extra urgency instead, but what would that entail for any Palestinian strategy?
And if there is no hope of a two-state solution, what is the role of the Palestinian Authority? Why persist with it?
There will be anger. There will be pain. And there will be change; deep, fundamental change to the logic that has dominated the whole conflict for nearly quarter of a century.
That at least should be a blessing. But at what cost in the meantime?
Omar Karmi is a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.