President Trump’s decision announced on 6th December 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to order the transfer of US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem reminds one of the 1917 Balfour Declaration that paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel. Trump has ignored the claims of Palestinians to have their capital in East Jerusalem. He has violated seven UN Security Council resolutions starting with the first one in 1980 when Israel proclaimed the Basic Jerusalem Law asserting that Jerusalem was its ‘eternal and undivided capital’.
The Balfour Declaration ignored the political rights of the Palestinians in what was till then known as Palestine when he said that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious right of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” The choice of the words “non-Jewish communities” to refer to the Palestinians who were in a majority then was part of the Zionist project to deny the existence of Palestinians as a people.
It is true that Trump was fulfilling one of the promises he had made as a candidate when he made this decision. But, he is not the first President who had made such a promise. For good and sufficient reasons, previous Presidents have signed a waiver twice a year to give more time to the State Department to act on a Congressional resolution of 1995 that required the move of the Embassy. It has been reported that Secretary of State Tillerson and Defense Secretary General Mattis had opposed the decision that Trump took in his hallmark CEO style.
Trump has clarified that he still supported a “two-state solution if the two parties can agree on it” and that his decision does not in any way prejudice the determination of the boundaries. Neither the Palestinians nor the rest of the world finds the clarification convincing.
Let us look at the background to the 6th December announcement. Within two days of his taking over as President on 20th January 2017, Trump appointed son-in-law Jared Corey Kushner, 37, as Senior Adviser to the President. Authorized by the President to conduct negotiations with Israel, Palestinian Authority, and others to work out a settlement to the vexed dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, Kushner has been traveling in the region since August 2017.He has spent time with the Saudi Crown Prince Mahmud bin Salman, 32, with whom he has established close personal relations. Both lack international diplomatic experience. They consider themselves to be creative minds able and willing to transcend the ossified thinking of older leaders.
The New York Times (3rd December 2017) carried a story that the Saudi Crown Prince had summoned the Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas to brief him about the outlines of a settlement and seek his acceptance. According to persons claiming to know what transpired, there will be a Palestine without full sovereignty, holding discontinuous patches of territory, without East Jerusalem as capital; Abbas was offered substantial financial incentives to the new entity and perhaps even to himself personally.
Arab sources have confirmed the New York Times report. On 7th November Mahmoud Abbas was given the outlines of a settlement previously agreed to between Kushner and the Crown Prince and Abbas was given the ‘option’ to resign if he did not agree. It is curious that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri summoned from Beirut did announce his resignation in Riyadh on 4th November. In his speech Hariri threatened Iran that its ‘hands will be cut off’, a phrase that those who know him believe was not in his style.
On 18th November the Palestinian mission in Washington was warned that it would be closed if the Palestinian authority did not seriously engage in the ‘peace process’. Curiously enough, it was a reference in Mahmud Abbas’s speech in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) made in September 2017 about taking Israel to the International Criminal Court that was given as reason. Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian official, responded that if the mission is closed they would stop accepting US mediation. There were signals that the move to close the mission has been reversed. However, a sword of Damocles does hang over the mission.
On 5th December, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed The Taylor Force Act stipulating that funds to the Palestinian Authority would be cut off from 2018 to 2024 if it pays salaries to the families of militant Palestinians killed or convicted by Israel. Taylor was a former army officer killed in Israel in 2016 while travelling.
We may tentatively conclude that Trump put pressure on Mahmud Abbas to accept the terms offered and was waiting for his acceptance before making any announcement. In the event, Abbas stood firm and Trump went ahead with his announcement.
Diplomatic Isolation of the US
Whether US had anticipated it or not, its isolation was almost total. In the 15-member Security Council, US had to use its veto as the rest 14 voted for a resolution that declared as “null and void” any decision to establish an embassy in Jerusalem. In the General Assembly, only seven voted with US and Israel (Guatemala, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Togo). The seven have a total population of 34.7 million. US Permanent Representative Nikki Haley had publicly threatened member-states and the number of abstentions and absentees, 56 in all, shows that the threat worked with some member-states.
Whether Kushner had a promise of support from the Crown Prince or not, King Salman, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, had no option but to come out opposing the Trump move. The Arab League and the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference) expressed strong opposition. However, it is learnt that even in the Arab League there were differing views. Some, including Saudi Arabia, did not want to be too harsh on Trump.
The response from the street has been loud and clear. The street protests have not been confined to the Arab world. In Indonesia and Malaysia, where the Prime Minister Najeb Rezak himself led, there have been huge protests. In Gaza, the death toll is 16.
India stuck to its principled stand that the status of Jerusalem should be decided by agreement between the two parties and therefore voted for the UNGA resolution. Prime Minister Netanyahu is due for a visit shortly. Prime Minister Modi might go to Ramallah soon.
The calculation of the White House is that the protests will not be sustained; Saudi Arabia is on board; the PLO can be pressurized to accept a less than sovereign entity. A small part of Eastern Jerusalem might satisfy the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), badly dependent on financial support from Saudi Arabia and others as it is. For Saudi Arabia it is more important to get Israel’s support in confronting Iran than in fighting for the Palestinians.
While it may be reasonably certain that the Saudi Crown Prince had endorsed the Kushner Plan in their talks, it does not follow that Saudi Arabia can openly support Trump on Jerusalem. The Trump decision can come in the way of a Saudi-Israel alliance against Israel. The Crown Prince has been publicly invited to visit Israel. The intelligence cooperation between the countries is getting intensified. A visit to Israel by the Crown Prince will have to wait.
While the Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia might agree with the assessment of the White House as given above, it is important to note that Jerusalem is not a purely Palestinian issue. It is from Jerusalem that the Prophet is supposed to have ascended to heaven and for the 1.5 billion Muslims it will be difficult to accept Israeli sovereignty over that holy city. Jerusalem is holy for Christians too. The 1947 UN plan had correctly envisaged an international status for the city.
Mahmoud Abbas has said that US can no longer act as an impartial intermediary. He is right, but it is doubtful whether US ever was an impartial intermediary. John Mearsheimer in his 2007 book The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy has conclusively proved that Israel practically controls US policy to the region. Hence, there was no way that US could be impartial.
The Muslim Brotherhood that started to decline after the military coup of 2003 that overthrew Morsi will politically gain from the Trump move. In Jordan the Brotherhood took the lead in the protests and these protests were the biggest in ten years. Apart from the Brotherhood, the Islamic State will also find it easier to get fresh recruits. IS has lost almost all territory in Iraq/Syria, but as an ideology it remains attractive to some young people across the world. The Palestinians might start an intifada and Abbas might lose his position. Polls suggest that the Hamas leader Ismail Haney has 53 percent support as against 41 percent for Abbas.
Future developments will depend on the resistance to the US move on the part of the Islamic world, the course of Saudi-Iran confrontation, and Israel’s own long-term agenda including the project for a Greater Israel. The geopolitical sky is clouded, and dangerous thunderstorms cannot be ruled out.
(Amb K P Fabian is a retired IFS Officer and a highly regarded expert on West Asia.)
(Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the VIF)