The Jerusalem Conundrum

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The Jerusalem Conundrum

Trump’s foreign policy trump card, seen as a lack of coherence and diplomatic finesse by his critics, is escalating tensions in an area that is already bleeding due to the violent nature of its power politics

West Asia appears to be cursed. When was the last time the region was portrayed or perceived in positive light in public discourse? Any development that augurs well for the future is matched by an unnerving development that suggests an impending catastrophe. First, Saudi Arabia arrested eleven princes on grounds of corruption. This was a sensational piece of news, yet innocuous as compared to the happenings in the region, and brought the region into spotlight again. Then we heard about the mysterious disappearance and resignation (later withdrawn) of Lebanese Prime minister Saad Hariri. This was followed by Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s announcement that evil ISIS had been defeated. And to top it all came President Donald Trump’s announcement regarding the status of Jerusalem and its significance. His statement, which recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, has sparked a outrage in Muslim majority countries, Islamic theocracies and European powers. America found itself isolated when 14 members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) emphatically condemned this move. 

Historically, America has also used its veto power in the United Nations to protect its closest ally in West Asia, Israel, and sheltering the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) which, at times, have been accused of committing war crimes. Former President Barack Obama’s frustration regarding Israel was evident when the US decided to abstain from a vote that criticized Israel’s expanding settlements in the West Bank, and thereby, let it pass 14-0 at the UNSC. This was a rare case. Out of the 226 resolutions condemning Israel since 1948, the US has barely vetoed ten per cent of them.

There was tremendous anxiety in West Asia when Trump was elected in November last year. The region, which has been intertwined in numerous conflicts and alliances, appeared perplexed. How would the new leader of the free world enunciate his policies regarding the troubled region; a region plagued by conflict and  hatred. His ambiguous and blurry stance on a number of issues coupled with his image of a fledgling leader raised eyebrows around the so called Islamic world. The decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has put to rest the concerns allegations of ambiguity; Trump clearly knows what he is doing. But new  questions are floating around now: Was it a wise choice to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel? If so, then what took the US close to six decades to do so? Further, will this decision help or hinder peace in West Asia?

Post World War II, the Jewish lobby in America has perfectly understandable wielded tremendous power. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is very influential in dictating and moulding public policy. In their widely read book, 'The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy', John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt delineate the authority the lobby commands. There is no doubt that this powerful organization had an instrumental role to play in Trump’s decision on Jerusalem. The history of the city itself is chequered. The city is of great significance to the three major Abrahamic religions; Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Israel’s King David captured Jerusalem, his descendants erected the Temple on the Mount; a site which is revered by Jews world over. Even though they are barred from entering the Temple, they pray at the Western Wall. The Christians visit the empty tomb of Jesus, and Muslims venerate the ‘Muslim Dome of Rock’ and the Al-Aqsa Mosque which is regarded as a very holy site in Islam. The image of Jerusalem as a melting pot of cultures and Abrahamic religions, however, compounds the conundrum.

When the United Nations announced resolution 181 in 1947, it essentially divided Israel into two parts; Israel and the Palestinian territories. But the resolution explicitly stated that the city of Jerusalem shall be established as a corpus separatum (separated body) and would be administered by the United Nations. However, the carnage that followed the 1947-48 Arab-Israeli war and the division of Jerusalem between Israel and Jordan put all such plans on the shelf. Events could said to have overtaken the decision and when in the 1967 War Israel emerged victorious, the Jewish nation captured East Jerusalem from Jordan and it has been under its control since. That’s the ground reality. However, throughout the negotiation process in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, it was implicitly acknowledged that a final settlement would have to answer the question: What will be status of Jerusalem? The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel agreed in the Oslo accord (1993) that a more permanent solution regarding Jerusalem can only be found through active negotiations between the parties concerned; Israel and the Palestinians in this case. One of the most iconic photographs which has been imprinted in public memory is of former US President Bill Clinton, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signing the historic accord.

Against this backdrop, it would safe to say that the coming year is going to be a tumultuous one for the city of Jerusalem. Many observers have pointed out that if Hamas convinces the Palestinian people that the sacred Al-Aqsa’ mosque will be threatened then there could be bloodshed on the streets of Jerusalem. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a coalition of 57 countries, has undermined the US position by stating that East Jerusalem is in fact the capital of an independent state of Palestine. West Asia has been so engrossed in its own power play over the years that the issue and status of Palestine has been put on the backburner. Needless to say, that Trump’s foreign policy trump card, seen as a lack of coherence and diplomatic finesse by his critics, is escalating tensions in an area that is already bleeding due to the vicious and violent nature of power politics in the region. His  statement regarding Jerusalem’s status is bound to be challenged and it will be contested vigorously by many stakeholders.

Is this a feasible policy choice?  The issue under scrutiny is so hotly contested that a unilateral decision will simply not be palatable to the countries involved in the conflict apart from Israel. A piece written by this writer for the Jerusalem Post last year had championed the idea of a closer bilateral relationship between India and Israel. There is no doubt that this relationship will thrive in the years to come. But the Indian Government must take a firmer stand on the unilateral US decision that betrays a lack of understanding of the complexities of the region rather than just trying to tread a delicate rope trying not to hurt Israeli, Palestinian and American sentiments. That would be a testament to the lack of independence in our own foreign policy framework.

(The writer is a socio-economic commentator)

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