A US embassy in Jerusalem changes nothing and everything

 
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By Khaled Diab

Donald Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem changes nothing on the ground but everything on the horizon. It is the final death certificate of the peace process. Now it’s time for something completely different.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Saturday 9 December 2017

Donald Trump has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and pledged to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Moving the embassy to Jerusalem would change nothing on the ground, as America already recognises Jerusalem in deed, and even in words, as reflected in the constantly deferred Jerusalem Embassy Act which was passed by Congress in 1995.

In addition, numerous countries operate consulates-general in Jerusalem, which officially do not report to neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian authorities. This is both a throwback to the original conception of Jerusalem in the 1947 UN partition plan as an internationally administered ‘corpus separatum’ and a tool of convenience for diplomats wanting to deal with both the Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, some of these consulates-general are embassies in all but name.

Whether or not America or any other country recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Israel regards it as such and is pursuing that goal aggressively through a blend of policies. Immediately following its conquest of East Jerusalem, Israel annexed the Palestinian part of the city and widened its municipal boundaries to cover large swathes of the West Bank. In addition, the Knesset, the prime minister’s office and Israel’s ministries are all located there.

Recent years have brought about accelerated settlement building in and around the annexed municipal area, effectively joining greater Jerusalem into a contiguous ring suffocating East Jerusalem and splitting up the West Bank in such a way as to make a Palestinian state unfeasible To anyone who has spent any significant period of time in Jerusalem, like myself, the rate and speed of construction is truly breathtaking.

Add to this the various Israeli policies being used to squeeze or push Palestinian Jerusalemites out, such as the near impossibility of Palestinians acquiring permits to build, home demolitions, the revocation of residence permits, not to mention the economic, social and political isolation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank thanks to the Israeli wall and barrier.

On the Israeli side of the equation, American recognition will not magically render Jerusalem Israel’s “united and eternal” capital, and not just because nothing is eternal, not even eternity, but also because Jerusalem is a bafflingly dysfunctional and divided city, and words and wishful thinking will not magically change that reality.

Over and above the headline fault lines dividing Jerusalem’s Israeli and Palestinian residents, there are also simmering tensions within each community between the religious and the secular. This has got so bad on the Israeli side that recent decades have seen an exodus of many secular Jerusalemites towards Israel’s more liberal coastal regions, transforming many Jerusalem neighbourhoods into pictures of black and white uniformity, the colours of choice of ultra-orthodox Jews.

Although America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital changes nothing on the ground, it has the potential to change everything on the horizon. Jerusalem, after all, is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is a potent cultural and religious symbol for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

This is reflected in how the old city’s skyline, dominated by the Dome of the Rock, features on everything from pre-partition Zionist posters inviting Jews to visit or come to Palestine, to the calendars and posters hanging on the walls of Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the diaspora. “Next year in Jerusalem,” is a Jewish payer recited in the disapora for centuries. Similarly, when Palestinian refugees think of return, they tend to picture Jerusalem.

Not being able to access Jerusalem is a constant source of frustration and disappointment for Palestinians who live in the West Bank, some within spitting distance of the holy city, and in Gaza because they lack the required Israeli permits. The number of Palestinian millennials I know who have never seen Jerusalem or last saw it when they were very young. One young Palestinian woman who was attending the same conference as me when the announcement was made could more easily travel to Brussels, where we were, than the half a dozen kilometres from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, which she’d last visited as a child.

Beyond the symbolism, Jerusalem is a microcosm of Palestinian suffering under occupation and their dispossession. For a bitterly disenchanted, disappointed and divided people, it is also a potent issue around which to rally. Where years of talks have faltered, Donald Trump has succeeded in uniting all Palestinian political factions in their opposition to his move, prompting them to call for “days of rage”, with the Friday protests leading to sporadic clashes and the death of at least two Palestinians, in Gaza.

Whether or not this leads to a fresh outbreak of prolonged protest or a new intifada depends on many factors. But with an intransigent Israel, no clear and consensual vision for Palestinian politics and no visionary leadership to channel public sentiment, any coming wave of protest is likely to be as directionless and futile as recent waves have been.

Meanwhile, some fear that Trump’s decision will embolden Israel to accelerate its settlement building. However, what this overlooks is that Trump’s very presence in the White House has emboldened the extremist Israeli government, and this is not the first nor will it be the last green light the US president will give the settler movement.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has cautioned that moving the embassy would have “dangerous consequences” for “the peace process and to the peace, security and stability of the region and of the world”.

Trump’s announcement has already brought protesters out on the streets of many Arab and Muslim countries, with some of the largest demonstrations in Tunisia, which is a bastion of pro-Palestinian sentiment and where freedom of assembly and expression are a protected right. How long such street protests will last and what effect they will have is unclear.

Moreover, it is impossible to predict what consequences this decision will have on an already volatile and inflamed Middle East. It could lead to a regional flare up and conflagration, as many fear and some even hope. But if it does, it will be more a function of already brewing tensions and longstanding grievances than this decision specifically.

However, it could also have no immediate consequences because much of the region is embroiled in its own problems and some, like Saudi Arabia, are interested in forging a cynical, implicit or explicit, alliance with Israel against Iran. What is certain is that it will fuel popular resentment, and with it hatred and bigotry.

As for fears about what this will mean for the peace process, I ask, what process? As I and many other critics of the Oslo accords have argued for years, the ‘peace process’ died a long, long time ago. In fact, it was still-born, partly due to its fatal birth defects and partly due to the events which followed. This latest move is an implicit confirmation of this reality by Washington, which has never been an “honest broker”.

It is high time for the Palestinian leadership to recognise this fact and to replace this futile process with a civil rights struggle, and to demand that the international community, especially Europe, support Palestinians in their efforts to gain concrete equal civil, political and economic rights, instead of forever chasing the mirage of a independent state for which no space exists any more.

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This is the updated version of an article which first appeared in Italian in Corriere della Sera on Wednesday 6 December 2017.

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The Arab world’s missed opportunities

 
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By Khaled Diab

Early Arab rejectionism and division unwittingly helped to build Israel and to lose Palestine, with the Palestinian people paying the heavy price.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

In my previous article, I highlighted the many opportunities that Israel has squandered over the decades to forge peace with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world and how this has jeopardised its  dream of creating a Jewish state.

But Israel does not possess a monopoly when it comes to harmful short-sightedness. In fact, one could argue that the Arab handling of the conflict has been so inept and self-defeating that Israel actually owes the Arabs a major debt of gratitude because, through their mis-steps, they have played a key supporting role in building the Jewish state, albeit unintentionally.

One key example of this is the Arab rejection of the 1947 United Nations partition plan for Palestine, as encapsulated in UN General Assembly Resolution 181. Though there is no excuse for how the Israelis pushed out or caused hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee, and refused to allow the vast majority of the refugees to return after the war, one can only speculate about what might have occurred had the Arabs not gone to war with the proto-Israeli state and, instead, focused their energies on building a strong and vibrant independent Palestine on the areas left to them.

On reading the above passage, many Arabs will protest that the UN partition was essentially unjust – neither the UN nor the British before them had the right to act imperialistically and give one people’s land to another – and unfair: under this deal, the Arabs would receive only 45% of the land even though they made up some two-thirds of the population in 1947.

But in rejecting the partition plan the Arabs ultimately cut off their nose to spite their face, especially since Arab leaders were well aware in private that they were not ready for war. Some might see in this a common characteristic both sides share, that the Holy Land somehow creates in its inhabitants a kind of “Massada mentality”.

After all, now that the shoe is on the other foot and Israel enjoys the upper hand, its lack of appetite for compromise is comparable – or perhaps worse because it has military might to back it up – to that of the Arabs all those decades ago. And if the international community were to try to impose a similar carve up today, then there is a very strong likelihood that Israel would go to war, like the Arabs did back then.

However, this brand of rejectionism is quite common around the world and is quite consistent with human nature. Consider the decades-long conflict since the partition of India or how the European nations would have reacted had a Jewish state been established in their midst.

Though there are plenty of precedents of people taking up arms to defend the takeover of their land, the Arab rejection was so catastrophic that what seemed like a raw deal in the 1940s now seems like an almost unattainable paradise.

Despite the rejection of the UN partition plan, over 40 years later, in 1988, the PLO based the Palestinian declaration of independence on Resolution 181. Moreover, today the Palestinian leadership – whether Fatah or Hamas – is willing to accept a state on the less-generous 1967 lines – although the recent controversy over Abbas’ interview on Israeli TV highlights the ongoing struggle between radicals and pragmatists, as well as the hardening of positions that has accompanied the failure of peace negotiations to reach a just settlement, leaving Palestinians with just settlements.

Of course, partition would not have magically ended the conflict, and could have led to civil war between the minorities and majorities in each state, and constant clashes between the two declared states, especially between expansionist Zionist and rejectionist Palestinian forces.  However, it is equally possible that partition would have provided a cooling-off period that would empower the realists on both sides. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that partition would have led to a more catastrophic outcome for the Palestinians than the mass dispossession and complete loss of Palestine that they have been left with.

Hindsight is a deceptive faculty, some might counter, because it tends to reveal things later that were not apparent at the time. How were the Arabs, who felt they had both right and might on their side, to know in 1947 that a year later they would be so decisively defeated, and that an even more comprehensive defeat was to follow in 1967?

Nevertheless, certain clear signs that pointed towards the urgent need to compromise were already very apparent in 1947. One clear pattern was that the longer the Arabs held out for a utopian dream, the greater the dystopian reality became.

In the interwar years, the inherent contradictions of conflicting, and largely expedient, wartime promises to both Zionist and Arab leaders were placing Britain, the imperial midwife of this bitter conflict, in a tight bind. Faced with mounting popular unrest against both British rule and Zionist immigration, the British establishment began to lean more towards the Arab side. This is illustrated in the “Churchill” White Paper of 1922 which tried to square Britain’s conflicting promises, made partly for wartime expediency, by offering Jews the right to limited immigration to Palestine and to enjoy autonomy there, as well as equal rights, but, crucially, within an independent Arab Palestinian state.

Despite the presence of pragmatists in the Palestinian ranks, the radicals who had gained the upper hand in the leadership of the Palestinian struggle refused this framework and similar future proposals, out of a rejection of British rule, their distrust of the Zionist project, and opposition to large-scale Jewish immigration.

Some have interpreted this opposition to Jewish immigration as a sign of xenophobia and racism, and elements of this certainly existed. But this interpretation is exaggerated, since the very earliest waves of Jewish immigration were tolerated and hardly noticed in Palestine’s rich ethno-religious tapestry.

However, subsequent immigration reached such a scale that it was radically and rapidly redefining the country’s demographic make-up. In the mid-19th century, Jews comprised some 4-5% of the population;  by 1947, they were almost a third. And this immigration, the Palestinian Arabs feared, had the colonial goal of robbing them of the independence the British had not yet granted them.

Though Zionism certainly had colonial designs on Palestine, opinion was extremely divided between those who advocated a single nation of equals, Jewish autonomy or full independence. Moreover, this exclusive focus on Zionist imperialism overlooked the reality that these bedraggled Jews who arrived in Palestine were not just colonists but also refugees, oppressed natives fleeing persecution and murder in their homelands.

Palestinians justifiably ask why they should have had to pay the price for Europe’s persecution of its Jewish population. But there is a much-overlooked flip side: the humanitarian imperative.

Even before the advent of modern international humanitarian law, the region had a long tradition of taking in refugees, including the Jews of Spain. More recently, Armenians fleeing genocide at the hands of the Turks found a safe haven in Palestine, and Palestinian refugees settled in such numbers across the river in neighbouring Jordan that they eventually far outnumbered the locals.

Politically, the inability to understand this element hurt the Palestinian cause because it led Arabs to believe that Zionism was a classical form of European colonialism, and so if they resisted it long enough and hard enough, the newcomers would eventually go home. But Zionism differed in at least one key respect: Jews who came to Palestine felt they had no “home” to return to, and that Palestine was the only home left to them.

So whether or not it was fair of the British to impose this burden on the Palestinians, Jewish immigration was a reality that was unlikely to stop or be reversed. An earlier recognition of this might have enabled the Arabs to accept a compromise favourable to their own interests – and even benefit from the diversity which immigration brings – while they still had the upper hand. Instead, the conflict escalated, with radicals on both sides stoking the flames of hatred and distrust, until the British started contemplating partition, such as in a 1939 white paper, and the newly minted UN decided fatefully and short-sightedly to impose this solution.

When the Arab armies entered Palestine in 1948 to intervene on the side of the Palestinians in the civil war that followed partition, Azzam Pasha, the first secretary-general of the Arab League said: “We are fighting for an Arab Palestine.”

But what did he mean by this? “Whatever the outcome the Arabs will stick to their offer of equal citizenship for Jews in Arab Palestine and let them be as Jewish as they like. In areas where they predominate, they will have complete autonomy,” the Egyptian diplomat insisted.

Had this been the general Arab position a quarter of a century earlier, the Palestinians may have gained their independence decades ago and Arabs and Jews may have today been living in a single democratic state of equality.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 4 November 2012.

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