Vol 11 Issue 6 Jan - Feb 2018
The US proposal to shift its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has dangerous portends
Saturday, January 27, 2018
No other city is as steeped in history or evokes so much emotion as Jerusalem. Held sacred by three religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - it holds five civilizations in its 4000 year old bosom. It has been attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, besieged 23 times and completely destroyed and rebuilt twice. This ancient city is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians and holds the key to peace or strife in the Middle East.
Shifting the US Embassy to Jerusalem
Jerusalem came into world focus once again when President Trump announced on 06 December that he intended to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Even as the furor of this latest disruptive act of the Trump Doctrine was making waves across the world, a resolution was raised in the United Nations General Assembly, demanding that the US rescind its recognition of Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel. In spite of a high voltage performance by Nikki Haley, the US representative at the United Nations, which involved hints, cajoling and downright threats to cut US funding for all nations that did not vote in its favor, only nine nations supported it, with 128 voting against and 35 abstaining. The nine, besides USA and Israel included notables such as Guatemala, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Togo and Palau. Even traditional allies like UK, Japan, South Korea and Germany voted against it, as did India.
It was one of the most stinging rebuttals of the US in an international forum and has considerably reduced its standing. Trump’s threat to move the embassy to Jerusalem remains to be seen, but its implications will be grave for the Middle East. It means that the USA has officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – something which the world does not recognize. To most of the world, the status of Jerusalem is still in dispute and Israel’s actions in its occupied areas illegal. Trump’s action changes 40 years of the Middle East peace process and may scuttle all prospects of any fair settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. To understand its implications, we must go back to the history of Jerusalem itself and the pivotal role it plays in the Israel –Palestine dispute.
The Bloody History of Jerusalem
Jerusalem was one of the hubs of the Turkish Ottoman Empire before it was captured by the British in the Early 20th Century. In 1947, the state of Israel was carved out of Palestine. As per the United Nations Partition plan, Jerusalem was declared an ‘International City’, which was surrounded on all sides by Arab nations and linked to Israel only by a single highway. In the wake of the 1948 Israel - Arab war which followed Israel’s violent birth, the city was divided into two halves, Israel claiming the Western half, and Jordon controlling the Eastern half which included the Old City including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall – one of the holiest of Jewish shrines. It also holds the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, shrines equally sacred to Muslims. It was an uneasy arrangement in which the Jews were denied access to their own prayer sites. Then came the 1967 war, when Israel captured all of Jerusalem and occupied East Jerusalem and the Old City. Images of Israeli soldiers praying at the Western Wall after their victory galvanized the Jewish World. General Moshe Dayan then said, “We have returned to our holy places. We shall never leave them”. The Israeli capture of Jerusalem is celebrated as one of Israel’s major holidays - Jerusalem Day – and major state events, including swearing in of Army recruits take place at the Western Wall.
The occupation of East Jerusalem by Israel has never been recognized by the international community which insists that it is an international city. Palestinians claim Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state they hope to establish some day. Even the fragile peace between Israel and the Arabs hinges on the fact that the disputed nature of the city would be recognized and the Palestinian people would get their share of the city in due course.
In July 1980, Israel passed a law declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – something condemned by the United Nations Security Council which declared it as ‘annexation of East Jerusalem and violation of International Law.’ Yet the Israelis continued building their settlements and kibbutz on the Eastern side effectively relegating the 2,40,000 Palestinians there to a minority. They have been squeezed into ghettos, subjected to checks and questioning, and barricaded by walls and barriers. Israel has de facto occupied all of Jerusalem and even calls it its Capital, but it is not recognized by any other nation so far.
Today 80 nations have their embassies in Tel Aviv, none in Jerusalem (though in 1980s Netherlands, Costa Rica and El Salvador did before moving them to Tel Aviv following world condemnation). In 1989, the USA was given a 99 year lease on a large plot of prime land to develop its embassy at the princely cost of $1 per year. However, the plot was not developed. In 1995 US Congress passed a law (under the influence of a strong Jewish lobby) for the embassy to move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But every President since then – Clinton, Bush and Obama have signed Presidential waivers circumventing the embassy move on grounds of security.
So, what will happen now? All Trump has to do is not sign the Presidential waiver which is due in Feb 18 and the US embassy will be required to move to Jerusalem. That will set off a new stage of unrest in the Middle East. The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has already termed the proposed move as “a violation of International Law and a huge setback to peace hopes”. The Palestinians have also stated that no US peace plan will be acceptable “since the US is no longer an honest mediator.” That will be a personal affront to Trump who has set his eyes on a Middle East peace deal to be brokered by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, which he claims will be ‘The deal of the Century”.
Shifting of the embassy may just see a recurrence of street violence in Palestinian territories and across the Arab world. Just hours after President Trump’s announcement the powerful Shia cleric Muqtada-al-Sadr said that the move represents “an open declaration of war against Islam” and demanded the closure of Israeli and US embassies in Islamic nations. The proposal thus threatens to widen the Western world versus Islam schism and perhaps precipitate another intifada in the occupied territories.
The proposed move could thus be a self-goal by the US. Its loss of face in the UN General Assembly means that other nations may not be so forthcoming in supporting US sponsored resolutions, like sanctions against North Korea, or the revoking of the US-Iran Nuclear deal. Iran may emerge as the major beneficiary in this. It can use the growing anger against the US and emerge as the Champion of the Islamic world. Russia too can emerge as a major player in the Middle East, especially after its involvement in Syria. With the US losing its sheen as ‘a honest broker’, it may take on the role, only then the pendulum will swing the other way.
Let us hope that good sense will prevail and the proposed move of the Embassy to Jerusalem does not come about. The US can adopt a face-saving measure like having the US Ambassador in Tel Aviv operate from its consulate in Jerusalem, but should it go ahead with constructing an embassy (in the same plot of land so helpfully provided by Israel) it may just trigger off another wave of unrest in the Middle East. The sheer symbolism of this step will put paid to any fair and just settlement, and may spark of another spiral of violence in this volatile and conflict-prone region.