Daanish Mustafa assesses the long and short term fal lout for the region as a whole, and Israel in particular, of President Trump’s recent Jerusalem announcement
Throughout the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States of America has held on to the narrative that it is an honest broker in the conflict. That the narrative was mostly fiction has been well known, especially in the Arab world. But US diplomats and some pro-Western Arab governments nevertheless clung to it. Embracing the alternative, especially in the post-Cold War era, sounded like a counsel of despair in a unipolar world. If the United States cannot prevail upon its closest ally to negotiate a dignified peace with the Palestinians, then surely hoping for such an outcome was a fool’s errand – or so it seemed.
The recently announced move of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv – the internationally recognised capital of Israel – to the occupied Jerusalem has now removed that thin fig leaf of neutrality that US and friendly Arab diplomacy in the region had desperately held on to. The move, however, is at least honest –a rarity in the diplomatic enterprise. The biggest victim in the short run will most likely be the so-called peace process, and perhaps the very future of Israel as a Jewish state, in the long run.
The US was not always beholden to Israel and its narrowly defined interests by the Likud party. During the Suez crisisof 1956, the Eisenhower administration did prevail upon the invading Anglo-French and Israeli armies to withdraw from the Egyptian territory. That was perhaps the last time the US undertook any concrete steps that could be described as neutral in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Following the 1967 defeat of the Arab armies at the hands of Israel, the US, in word if not in deed, has maintained a neutral stance. Consonant with international law, America’s formal position has been that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and formerly of the Sinai Peninsula and South Lebanon was and is illegal and needs to be reversed. Arab and international public opinion, however, noted that, despite the neutral legal position, the actual US diplomatic and military support were the biggest impediments to realising the legally enunciated objectives.
It is not clear fromPresident Trump’sannouncement where in the city of Jerusalem the embassy will move to. From an international legal perspective, West Jerusalem is sovereign Israeli territory and there is no legal impediment to the embassy moving anywhere there.However, by the Jerusalem Law of 1980,Israeldeclared all of Jerusalem, including the occupied East Jerusalem, as part of the same united city with a uniform legal regime and municipal government. The United Nations, however – along with practically every country in the world, with a few exceptions– deems East Jerusalem as definitely occupied territory.
The decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem on the one hand creates a perception that, contrary to international law and its own stated position, the US is perhaps recognising the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. That may not formally be the case, but the optics of the move certainly point in that direction. Rewarding military occupation by recognition undermines the US position practically the world over, from Crimea to Western Sahara and, retrospectively, its intervention against the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. But, more importantly, any perception of recognising military occupation undermines the very basis of the contemporary international system predicated upon inviolability of sovereign borders, especially by military means. On the other hand, the move makes it much more difficult for pro-Western Arab governments to defend their alliances with the US, in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict – especially Jordan,a key and sensitive Western ally.
As for Arab public opinion, there seems to be just weariness. The Arab street is cognisant and resentful of the US tilt towards Israel, and is increasingly intolerant of its own US-supported, undemocratic governments. To what extent this move will further fuel resentment, to the extent of destabilising the pro-western regimes, remains to the seen. So far, in my experience the examples of Libya and Syria are keeping much of the Arab populations’revolutionary fervor in check. They are, for now, resigned to the devil they know. Whether they continue to be will be no thanks to US policies in the region, especially the embassy move.
The biggest victim of this shift to Jerusalem is not the fiction of US neutrality, but the equally well known and equally fictitious peace process. In the post-Cold War era the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed up to the Oslo Accord as perhapsthe best guarantee for the formation of a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Accord, according to many of its critics (including the respected Palestinian American academic, the late Edward Said), was a surrender legitimising Israeli military occupation, while leaving the Palestinian authority to serve as an instrument of civil control over the population. The building of new settlements and the expansion of existing ones since the signing of the Accord is testament to the veracity of that criticism. That, along with the construction of the separation wall in the West Bank, has been an unequivocal message to the Palestinians, the Israelis and to the world that Israel has no intention of relinquishing control over the West Bank. A brief look at the Oslo Accord map further confirms that perception.
The embassy move will most likely put an end to the charade of a peace process and with it the mirage of the two-state solution. Israel has already made the eventuality of a viable Palestinian state on the West Bank impossible with its appropriation of the area’s water resources along with the construction of more and more settlements in the occupied territories.
The long term consequences of the end of the two-state solution for Israel and its foundational myth as a Jewish state are likely to be fatal. Simple demographics tell the story. According to analyses by Sergio Della Pergola of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published in the American Jewish Yearbook, the Palestinian population in the occupied territories and Israel proper is likely to range between 8.1 and 26.1 million by 2050, with a medium scenario of 14.7 million. The Jewish population of Israel is likely to range between 7 and 10.3 million, with a medium scenario of 8.8 million over the same period.The upshot of the above numbers is that the most likely scenario for the state of Israel, should it choose to hold on to the occupied territories, is that by 2050, Jews will constitute 37 per cent of the population of the State of Israel.
The Israelis know this reality in their bones. A visit to Israel and seeing the almost manic emotions and behaviour of the populace, especially on the roads, testifies to their sense of foreboding. They may chalk it up to the constant conflict, but the insulated lives that the Israelis have built for themselves behind their separation walls, the weaponry of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and the almost racist rhetoric of the Israeli right cannot protect them from this future. Every young Israeli who serves in the IDF, seeing the occupation and what it does to the Palestinians, knows this reality. They may recite the Zionist mantra of saving the refuge of the Jews from the hostile Arabs. But their own history, and the intellectual richness of their own heritage, cannot let them escape the occupation’s effect on them as occupiers for long. Hence the aggressiveness that only bone-chilling fear can enable.
The Israeli right may have dreams of an insulated, fortified, segregated Eretz (the larger biblical lands of) Israel. Donald Trump, under the influence of the allied forces of the Israeli and American Christian Right, may have undertaken this symbolic move towards the realisation of that Eretz Israel dream. But itcouldlead to the erasure of the State of Israel.
The US embassy in Jerusalem may yet end up being a US diplomatic mission to a multi-ethnic and religious, truly secular state. In that sense, Donald Trump may have done a service to both the Jews and the Palestinians, steering them towards a common and hopefully democratic, peaceful future. Perpetual war and apartheid is unsustainable, and anti-historical. The sooner the Zionist right comes to this realisation, the sooner we will have a just peace in the Middle East.