All the king’s horses and all the king’s men and almost all the kings convened the ‘extraordinary summit’ in Istanbul on December 13 under the auspices of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) to counter President Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem.
For the majority gathered in Istanbul, the Palestinian conflict is viewed solely through a religious, more specifically a crescent-shaped, prism. Thus, the OIC’s declaration on ‘Freedom of Al-Quds’ discounted the non-Muslim populations in the region, and emphasised that the Muslim ummah could defend its causes globally. When the world desired inclusivity, the group demanded exclusivity.
The released document mentioned East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, in a knee-jerk reaction to Trump’s declaration. If such a state has to exist; it has to be agreed upon not just by the ummah but also the non-Muslim Palestinian population. It has to be then recognised by Israel, the US, the UN, and other neighbouring Arab nations.
This seemed like mere bluster by the OIC. Even though the UN Security Council members showed unwavering opposition to Trump’s decision, and the UN General Assembly voted against it; the world’s reaction is largely symbolic. As in the past, its unfettered non-binding support has been to resolve the issue through negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Interestingly, Russia became the first country to declare West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital earlier this year, but the world did not care about the Russian declaration as much. The American announcement was given much greater significance which still stands all-powerful albeit challenged at the UN forum.
US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley posed a threatening tone and warned that no vote in the UN would make any difference to the decision taken by the American President. “The decision does not preclude a two-state solution, if the parties agree to that. The decision does nothing to harm peace efforts,” referring to the fact that the decision does not prejudge the final status issues, including Jerusalem’s boundaries. This was also the part of President Trump’s speech that was generally not taken into consideration. He had stated, “Jerusalem is today, and must remain, a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall, where Christians walk the Stations of the Cross, and where Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque.”
Does the presidential announcement give Israel any pass, or demarcate borders? That appears to be the caveat for other countries: Borders. Is Jerusalem still divided? Would Trump be able to push Israel out of the Eastern part? The general understanding that developed after the announcement was that the whole of Jerusalem has been awarded to Israel. To avoid this suspicion, the president could have taken the old route of trying to fix compulsory issues first and then deciding the respective capitals. But he rejected the notion saying, “we cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies of the past. All challenges demand new approaches.”
Since 1995, all presidents before Trump have exercised the waiver provision, hoping to achieve the Palestine-Israel peace process first and then adopt the Jerusalem Embassy Act. Trump stirred up the old order, and when he announced Jerusalem as Israel’s capital he did not specify if it’s just West Jerusalem or the eastern part as well which the Israeli forces occupied in 1967. This created enormous ambiguity. The announcement broke with an international consensus that Jerusalem’s final status should first be decided in direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians and then any other movement made in this regard. Therefore, the UN demanded the US to rescind its declaration on Jerusalem and keep it a contested holy city as it has always been.
Before making the decision, Trump spent a whole day explaining the policy change in telephonic calls with Prime Minister Netanyahu; Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president; and Arab leaders who apparently warned him that it could disrupt the peace process.
However, Donald Trump “very clearly” said that nothing is defined so far. “This decision is not intended, in any way, to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement. We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians. We are not taking position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.”
The president also asserted that the US would support a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides. He called on all parties to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, including the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif. The next logical step is to carry out and oversee a peace plan between the Israelis and Palestinians.
One of the critical negotiators in the past from the Israeli side, Yossi Beilin, believes that the Trump declaration is just a part of public diplomacy. Beilin’s far-reaching proposed peace agreement in the mid 1990s, after lengthy negotiations, came to be known as the Beilin-Abu Mazen document. It remained an unofficial draft because of the assassination of the then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. After that, both sides refuted the existence of any such deal.
I asked Dr. Beilin what the future holds and how different any peace proposal could be from the Oslo Accords and the Geneva Initiative? He replied: “I think that the optimal plan, right now, should be based on the ‘Arab Initiative’ from 2002 and on the ‘Road Map’ from 2003; namely: a Palestinian State in provisional borders for a limited period, and an intensive Arab involvement in the process, which will culminate in full normalisation with Israel.”
The Arab Initiative was spearheaded by the Saudis. It called for normalising relations between the Arab region and Israel, in exchange for a full withdrawal by Israel from the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, and a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem based on UN Resolution 194. The Palestinian Authority had embraced the plan.
The Road Map was proposed by the Quartet on the Middle-East: the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations in April 2003. The plan described as a “performance-based and goal-driven roadmap” has three phases. It aims at an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace.
Given the humanitarian crisis that looms over the region, the cycle of distrust and violence that sustains, and efforts for peace that are frustrated, the only rational response to this continuing tragedy is to revitalise the peace process through negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The US has also proclaimed that it remains deeply committed to facilitating a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides. If it’s any indication, Trump’s first ever tour as president was to Saudi Arabia and then to Israel to discuss the region. His administration says that it will unveil the peace plan “when the time is right” to do so.
Meanwhile, the ummah propagators need to realise that the bloodshed has not helped Palestinians gain any territory or other rights so far. As Jimmy Carter puts it, a genuine move toward peace might bring rich dividends by arousing support in the US and other nations. Trump’s decision must be followed up by a peaceful dialogue to preserve the two-state solution and lobbying for border settlement according to the wishes of the concerned parties.