The hysteria surrounding the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is based on the fact that too much store is laid on Donald Trump-baiting, not enough attention is paid to what he said. Moreover, there is a lot of ignorance of history. As things stand, President Trump’s announcement simply acknowledges reality, buries the false shibboleths of the old peace process, and kick-starts a new approach, exactly as he claimed.
The first thing to note here is that the land allocated for the future US embassy building in Jerusalem is in West Jerusalem. And Israeli control over West Jerusalem was sanctified first by the 1949 armistice agreement and then formalized in 1967, thereby forming the baseline for the Oslo accords and the UN resolutions. This line demarcates the “State of Israel”, recognition of which was the precondition to the Israeli-Palestinian accords. Israeli control over West Jerusalem, therefore, is not disputed—at least not by the Palestinian Authority or by the countries that recognize and maintain diplomatic relations with Israel.
The US consulate in the city, on the other hand, straddles this imaginary 1949 line, being half in West Jerusalem and half in an area that was a demilitarized zone. It was in 2010, under president Barack Obama, that the building was shifted from its previous location in East Jerusalem to its present position. Thus, the belief that setting up an embassy in West Jerusalem sanctifies the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem (which is not internationally recognized) is simply factually incorrect, as the presence of the previous consulate would have already conferred such legitimacy, as would the current consulate. At any rate, President Trump’s announcement makes it clear that the US is “not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders”.
Second, we have to understand that the so-called peace process to which everyone seems so attached has been effectively dead ever since the late Yasser Arafat, the then president of the Palestinian Authority, rejected the proposed final settlement at the Camp David Summit in July 2000. That deal offered him 95% of the West Bank, all of Gaza, compensation in lieu of the right of return of the Palestinian diaspora, and, most importantly East Jerusalem.
Arafat decided that the best way to get an even better deal was to stoke violence, triggering the second intifada in September of that same year, ostensibly to protest Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque. What is important about this point is that it highlights each side’s approach to negotiations—but also the sheer futility of land for peace—trading tangible land in return for intangible peace.
Israel, for its part, uses a mix of carrot and stick. The carrots are the repeated offer of land transfer that happened for much of the 1990s, while the sticks have been the construction of settlements. The message it conveys to the Palestinians is, “take what you are offered now, or else we will keep nibbling away at your territory, create new ground realities and your slice of the land pie will only continue to shrink”.
When agreement has been reached in the past, Israel has demonstrated a willingness to live up to its side of the bargain. For example, the agreement ending the second intifada in 2005 was followed by the total withdrawal of Israel, settlements, settlers, troops and all, from the Gaza strip.
On the Palestinian side, there is no real negotiating tactic, merely failure-compensation to mask monumental corruption and incompetence. For much of his life, Arafat failed to control terrorists on his side who went on to kill Israelis, frequently encouraging them through acts of commission and omission and the rhetoric of hate, saying one thing in English and quite the other in Arabic. For example, as late as 18 August 2011, the Palestinian ambassador to India, Adli Sadeq, was praising a terror attack in Eilat that killed six civilians and injured 30 as a “quality operation that will be difficult to repeat”, referring to the perpetrators as “martyrs”.
A pervasive view in the West Bank, including among Palestinian Authority officials, is that in a few years they will overtake the Jews demographically and then demand equal rights in a unified state. This wishful thinking is the closest the Palestinian state has to a coherent policy—negating the two-state solution (which they espouse publicly but reject privately, not unlike extremist Jews) and believing rather delusionally that Israel will agree to reverse the partition of Palestine.
What Trump’s announcement has done is fire a warning shot. The move of the embassy to Jerusalem carries with it the implicit threat that the US will either sanctify or reject Israeli control of East Jerusalem. On the one hand, this conveys to the Palestinian Authority that it must reach a settlement during Trump’s presidency. On the other, it is equally a warning to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose core constituency would consider it unthinkable to give up the occupied territories. While some commentators, without any proof or causal linkages, will attribute future acts of violence and terror to this move, the inescapable conclusion remains that this is a pragmatic step in the right direction.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
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