Israel- Palestine after the Islamic Summit at Istanbul

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) consisting of 57 Muslim majority countries with its headquarters in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia has had some achievements in the field of science and technology, media development etc. but has not been able to develop any meaningful political clout. It meets at the heads of state level every three years and at foreign ministers level annually. It passes the usual anodyne resolutions on Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, and recently the atrocities committed by the Myanmar government on the Rohingya minority, which have a marginal impact on the consciousness of the international community.

The recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by US President Donald Trump, not unexpectedly evoked a furious response among some members of the OIC. Recep Erdogan, President of Turkey was able to organize an emergency summit of the OIC at short notice. In the event around 26 heads of state were present in Istanbul. Conspicuous by their absence were the heads of state of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, Bahrain and others. This lack of unanimity regarding Jerusalem which contains the revered Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock- the third holiest shrine for 1.5 billion Muslims- is redolent of the disarray which informs the Islamic world today.

The speeches in Istanbul bitterly criticized the American president. The octogenarian leader of the Palestine Authority, Mahmud Abbas proclaimed that through this action America had demonstrated that it could no longer be considered an honest broker in the decades-long Israeli- Palestine conflict. Erdogan, the host referred to Israel as an “occupying and terror state”. It remains to be seen if in continuation of his vitriolic statement, Erdogan will break off Turkey’s diplomatic relations with Israel.

The main demand of the summit was the call for recognition by the international community of Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state. If this issue is raised in the UN Security Council it will almost certainly attract a US veto. It is thus clear that for the time being at least the condemnatory speeches which animated the Islamic summit, would have little to no effect on either the US, the longtime main and fervent supporter of Israel, or on the extreme right wing Israeli government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. The latter reportedly stated that he was “not impressed” by the summit.

The Islamic countries are too weak and divided and some of them are either beholden to the United States like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain, or are developing linkages with Israel without formally recognizing that state. The media has been reporting on the developing friendship between Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) and the Trump-appointed special envoy for the Middle East Jared Kushner. Kushner also happens to be Trump’s son-in-law.

According to one report, the bonhomie between the two was demonstrated in a recent meeting in Riyadh where they kept talking till 4 am! Some media also reported that following these contacts, MBS summoned Mahmud Abbas to Riyadh and told him to accept a two-state solution whereby the Palestinians would exercise partial sovereignty over parts of the West Bank which had started looking like a piece of Gruyere cheese. The media also stated that MBS reportedly told Abbas to forget about Arab East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital. Instead it should content itself with an outlying Jerusalem suburb called Abu Dis. Further that there would be no right of return of the Palestinian refugees who had been forced out of their homes by the Israelis in the 1948 and 1967 wars. Obviously these terms could not be accepted by any Palestinian leader.

If these media reports are accurate, they show a level of disdain by Saudi Arabia for the Palestinian cause which did not exist before. It is worth recalling that Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Islamic world had proposed the Fahd Plan in 2002 to resolve the Israeli- Palestinian conflict based on recognition of Israel by all Islamic countries; withdrawal by Israel to the 1967 borders; and the acceptance by Israel of two states living in peace with Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. Israel had not accepted the Fahd plan. We can now see how far the Saudi position has evolved from 2002 when the plan was mooted, to the current parameters being allegedly pressed upon the Palestinian leadership.

Iran was present at the OIC Summit in the person of its president Hassan Rouhani. The authoritarian states of the Arabian Peninsula are extremely worried about Iran’s increasing influence in the Middle East manifested in countries like Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. King Abdullah II of Jordan had famously remarked a few years back, of an Iran supported Shia arc surrounding the Arab Sunni states. To neutralize Iranian influence, the Saudis and some other Arab states are relying on the United States openly and Israel covertly to push back against Iran. Whether this policy is assured of success is difficult to predict. Perhaps some political and diplomatic accommodation between the Arab states and Iran, may be a more feasible option.

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