Reading between the lines of the US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital reveals a deliberate ambiguity, leaving the door open to having West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem as the capitals of Israel and Palestine respectively.
The symbolism of the change in the official position of the US presidency is certainly important, while the actual measures that will be taken to transfer the US embassy to Jerusalem in two years will transform the symbolism into action. More serious is the fact that Trump has introduced what he called reality and facts on the ground to international legitimacy – which had accompanied the decades-long efforts related to the Arab-Israeli conflict – upending fundamental principles in international relations and international law.
This requires a different kind of response, one that goes beyond slogans, protests, threats, lamentations, censures, and one-upmanship regarding the central status of Jerusalem for Arab nations and Muslim nations, including Iran, Turkey, and others.
The first step is to scrutinize the remarks made by the US president and fill in the blanks. Indeed, Trump did not talk of an undivided Jerusalem when he recognized the city as Israel’s capital, which means that he has managed to avoid falling into the Israeli narrative insisting that Israel’s capital would be the “Unified Jerusalem”.
While Trump claimed his move “is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality,” he left it vague by not distinguishing between West Jerusalem, Israel’s de-facto capital that is home to the Israeli government’s headquarters, and East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want to be the capital of their future state in the context of the peace process, despite Israel’s categorical refusal.
Therefore, it is important to capitalize on the ambiguity in Trump’s announcement to fill in the blanks, and push for the recognition of the reality on the ground with West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but also East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, as part of a worldwide campaign that upholds international legitimacy in the face of a policy that favors recognizing de-facto reality but at the expense of international norms and principles, so that the law of the jungle does not trample the civilized laws that organize international relations.
More importantly, the Arab parties must stop pretending to have been caught off guard, and to change their approach of always reacting after it is too late. A plan is in the works – it will be purportedly revealed next year – for an incomplete peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis, based on a non-contiguous, fragmented, and demilitarized Palestinian mini-state with limited sovereignty and temporary borders, and whose capital would be in Abu Dis, a village near Jerusalem. Its economy would be based on economic aid and financial consolation packages. Israel is involved in this plan, and reports suggest Arab governments are also part of the negotiations. So let the response be practical, realistic, and honest to avoid missing any more opportunities through stubborn denial; otherwise, pragmatism will come in the form of a Palestinian coffin carried on both American and Arab shoulders.
Some voices denunciating Trump’s Jerusalem move have appealed to the United States to instead return to playing the role of the “honest broker” between Israel and Palestine. In reality, however, this characterization has always been disingenuous and false. The simple logic is that the United States and Israel have a strategic alliance and an organic relationship that prevents Washington from being this honest broker, as there is no room for the United States to be unbiased in the Palestinian-Israeli question. When Donald Trump himself had previously said he wanted the United States to be “unbiased” in the conflict on the campaign trail, there was a huge backlash especially from his Jewish supporters. Trump has since adjusted his position, entrusting his Jewish son in law Jared Kushner with the miraculous task of finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kushner’s beliefs and affinities are clear. He believes that the key to a solution lies with the Sunni Arab bloc led by Saudi Arabia, whereby the Palestinian-Israeli peace deal would be part of a regional and international settlement with Israel. Kushner is thinking in the language of financial inducements to persuade the Palestinians to accept an incomplete state with provisional borders but which have the smell of being permanent, and also in the language of economic sanctions should the Palestinians refuse.
Trump’s son in law’s ideas are nothing revolutionary in terms of US policy on Israel and its conflict with the Arabs. Rather, they are a logical progression in the context of the steady retreats made by previous administrations, ever since former President Jimmy Carter brokered the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel, and the punitive measures taken by the George W. Bush administration against Israel over its settlement building. Since then, the US administration gradually but consistently walked away from its own principles, including Bush’s endorsement of a historical US-proposed Security Council resolution enshrining the two-state solution. This was the last serious achievement of US policy on the conflict. Indeed, former President Barack Obama entered the White House with a slew of promises to achieve an equitable solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but left 8 years later with nothing to show for except a weak resolution that declared Israeli settlement building as non-conducive to peace. Barack Obama had even rejected proposal for an important Security Council resolution that would have laid down a firm grounding for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, under various excuses and electoral pretexts.
Neither the idea of a provisional Palestinian state nor a Palestinian state with provisional borders is new. When I interviewed him, the US Secretary of State under George W. Bush, Colin Powell, had proposed this notion, triggering a debate worldwide. The idea of tackling the Palestinian issue through economic and financial packages without giving Palestinians sovereignty is also nothing new, and had been suggested by the US Secretary of State George Schultz, who served under Bush Sr. And the same applies to Israel considering Gaza the foundation of a Palestinian state, while rejecting contiguity with the West Bank.
But there are indeed two new things in the approach of Donald Trump’s administration and Jared Kushner’s team: 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, namely, 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 personally believes Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel. Pence is flying to meet Middle Eastern leaders soon, and intends to address the Israeli Knesset, but he wanted to have the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in his pocket first. The opposition by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to the move does not concern the White House, which considers him to be a fleeting presence at this juncture. The views of Defense Secretary James Mattis also do not concern much the senior officials at the White House, who are confident the so-called Arab and Muslim Streets will not rise up, and that a third Palestinian intifada won’t come, wouldn’t last if it came, or if it lasted then it could be used by Israel to justify further deportations of Palestinians, the only practical solution to the demographic problem in Israel’s thinking.
In their thinking, even if the response exceeds expectations, this could only further undermine the two-state solution that Israel was not convinced of from the get-go, but was imposed on it by the United States and the international community. Closing the curtain on the two-state solution remains an Israeli strategy, and therefore, Israel sees as conducive to it any measures that escalate anger, including Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Israel does not want the two-state solution, period. It is time to acknowledge this.
The UN 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 unequivocal support for Israel and the US 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 will evolve on the basis of accepting the facts on the ground rather than international legitimacy, a battle promised by Nikki Haley in support of Israel at the UN.
The Palestinian Authority has missed one opportunity after the other, including in regards to suing the occupation at the International Criminal Court, as it had promised and pledged before backtracking on several occasions. The PA had also threatened to dissolve itself to stop serving as a safety valve for Israel, but backed down after realizing it was the Oslo Accords that had established it and that there are no agreements in place that would allow it to return to power if it walks away from it. For its part, Hamas remains the biggest factor that has helped Israel capitalize on Palestinian division, and it serves as a hidden weapon in the hands of Israel 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. However, Israel wants Trump to go further and recognize the “undivided” Jerusalem as its capital. For the time being, this will remain in the realm of ambiguity, until more is known of Kushner’s plan.
Claims that Iran is set to benefit at Saudi Arabia’s expense are premature, because Iran is also required to prove a real opposition to compromises involving Jerusalem, beyond lip service. The onus for this is on everybody’s shoulders. Meanwhile, Russia’s one-upmanship is almost laughable. Indeed, it was Russia that guaranteed the Golan Heights for Israel, with which it has close relations. If Russia is truly determined to prevent the fall of all of Jerusalem into the Israeli hands, then it must do more. And Turkey’s hands are bound though its tongue is loose. Its strategic considerations continue to come ahead of any real measures on its part, and for this reason, its objection will remain superficial.
Finally, the Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, are the forefront of the American challenge, either through unprecedented opportunities that will come through plans for regional settlement, or through developments that could drag these countries to a reckoning because of the American faux pas.