By Raghida Dergham*
Reading between the lines of US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital reveals a deliberate ambiguity, leaving the door open to having the west and east of the city as the capitals of Israel and Palestine, respectively. The symbolism of the change in the official US position is important, while measures taken to transfer its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in two years will transform the symbolism into action.
More seriously, Trump has introduced what he called reality and facts on the ground to international legitimacy — which had accompanied decades-long efforts regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict — upending fundamental principles in international relations and law. This requires a response that goes beyond slogans, protests, threats, lamentations, censures and one-upmanship regarding the central status of Jerusalem to Arab and Muslim nations.
The first step is to scrutinize Trump’s remarks. He did not talk of an undivided Jerusalem when he recognized the city as Israel’s capital, meaning that he has managed to avoid falling into the Israeli narrative of a “unified Jerusalem.”
Trump claimed his move “is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality.” But he left it vague by not distinguishing between West Jerusalem, Israel’s de-facto capital where its government is located, and East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state, despite Israel’s categorical refusal.
So it is important to capitalize on the ambiguity in Trump’s announcement to fill in the blanks, and to push for recognition of the reality on the ground with West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and East Jerusalem as Palestine’s. More importantly, Arab parties must stop pretending to have been caught off guard, and change their approach of always reacting after it is too late.
A plan is in the works — purportedly to be revealed in 2018 — for an incomplete peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis based on a non-contiguous, fragmented, demilitarized Palestinian mini-state with limited sovereignty and temporary borders, whose capital would be in Abu Dis, a village near Jerusalem. Its economy would be based on aid and financial consolation packages.
Israel is involved in this plan, and reports suggest Arab governments are too. So let the response be practical, realistic and honest to avoid missing anymore opportunities due to stubborn denial. Otherwise, pragmatism will come in the form of a Palestinian coffin carried on American and Arab shoulders.
Some voices denouncing Trump’s Jerusalem move have appealed to the US to return to playing the role of “honest broker” between Israel and Palestine. But this characterization has always been disingenuous and false. The US and Israel have a strategic alliance and an organic relationship that prevents Washington from being an honest broker.
When Trump said on the campaign trail that he wanted the US to be “unbiased” in the conflict, there was a huge backlash, especially from his Jewish supporters. He has since adjusted his position, entrusting his son-in-law Jared Kushner with the miraculous task of finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kushner believes that the key to a solution lies with the Sunni Arab bloc led by Saudi Arabia, whereby a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal would be part of a regional and international settlement. He is thinking of financial inducements to persuade the Palestinians to accept an incomplete state with provisional borders, and of economic sanctions should they refuse.
Kushner’s ideas are nothing revolutionary in terms of US policy. Rather, they are a logical progression in the context of the steady retreats made by previous administrations since former President Jimmy Carter’s. Since then, the US has gradually but consistently walked away from its own principles, including former President George W. Bush’s endorsement of a historic US-proposed UN Security Council resolution enshrining the two-state solution.
This was the last serious achievement of US policy on the conflict. Former President Barack Obama entered the White House with a slew of promises to achieve an equitable solution, but left eight years later with nothing except a weak resolution that declared Israeli settlement-building unconducive to peace. He even rejected a proposal for an important Security Council resolution that would have laid down a firm grounding for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
The idea of a provisional Palestinian state, or a state with provisional borders, is not new. When I interviewed former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, he proposed this notion, triggering worldwide debate.
The idea of tackling the Palestinian issue via economic and financial packages, without giving Palestinians sovereignty, is also nothing new. It was suggested by former US Secretary of State George Schultz, who served under George H.W. Bush. The same applies to Israel considering Gaza the foundation of a Palestinian state, while rejecting contiguity with the West Bank.
But there are two new things in the Trump’s administration approach: The principle of a grand bargain between Israel and the Sunni bloc, covering the Palestinian issue; and the boldness to relaunch efforts from the thorniest knot in the conflict — that of Jerusalem — which previous efforts had made the last stop.
US Vice President Mike Pence is one of the strongest backers of Trump’s bid, and he believes Jerusalem is Israel’s eternal capital. Pence is flying to meet Middle Eastern leaders soon, and intends to address the Israeli Parliament, but he wanted to have recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in his pocket first.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s opposition to the move does not concern the White House, which considers him a fleeting presence at this juncture. The views of Defense Secretary James Mattis also do not much concern senior White House officials, who are confident the so-called Arab and Muslim streets will not rise up.
They are also confident that a third Palestinian uprising will not come, that it would not last if it came, or that if it lasted, it could be used by Israel to justify further deportations of Palestinians — the only practical solution to the demographic problem in Israel’s thinking.
This could only further undermine the two-state solution, which Israel was not convinced of from the get-go, but was imposed on it by the US and the international community. Closing the curtain on the two-state solution remains an Israeli strategy, which thus includes any measures that escalate anger.
The Security Council previously issued resolutions adopting the two-state solution and rejecting unilateral measures, especially in Jerusalem. But the US envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, was clear in her support for Israel and recognition of Jerusalem as its capital.
It is important to now monitor how US positions in the Security Council, the General Assembly and UN agencies evolve on the basis of accepting facts on the ground rather than international legitimacy, a battle promised by Haley in support of Israel at the UN.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has missed one opportunity after another, including in regards to suing Israel at the International Criminal Court, as it had pledged to do before backtracking on several occasions.
The PA had also threatened to dissolve itself to stop serving as a safety valve for Israel. But it backed down after realizing it was the Oslo Accords that established it, and there are no agreements in place that would allow it to return to power if it walked away from the accords.
Hamas remains the biggest factor that has helped Israel capitalize on Palestinian division. It serves as a hidden weapon in Israel’s hands should it need to justify the forcible transfer and deportation of Palestinians when the time comes.
The biggest winner after Trump’s announcement is Israel, but Israel wants him to go further and recognize “undivided” Jerusalem as its capital. This will remain ambiguous until more is known of Kushner’s plan.
Claims that Iran is set to benefit are premature because Tehran is required to prove itself a real opposition to compromises over Jerusalem, beyond lip service. Meanwhile, Russia’s one-upmanship is almost laughable. If it is truly determined to prevent the fall of all of Jerusalem to Israel, it must do more.
Turkey’s hands are bound while its tongue is loose. Its strategic considerations continue to come ahead of any real measures, so its objections will remain superficial. Arab countries — especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan — are the forefront, either through unprecedented opportunities that will come from plans for a regional settlement, or via developments that could drag them to a reckoning because of the American faux pas.
• Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute. She served as a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat daily for 28 years. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association, and has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. Twitter: @RaghidaDergham