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Crucible of contestation

The present Jerusalem controversy, arising from the decision of the president of the United States of America, Donald Trump, to recognize the city as Israel’s capital, lies in the paradox of the city; it is of little military or strategic consequence, yet it is an emotionally charged and fiercely contested frontier at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reason is in what constitutes the Old City of Jerusalem, the walled area that is both the key to a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the epicentre of the dispute, exceptional by virtue of its sacral significance because it accommodates some of the holiest sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the Muslim-Jewish site of the Temple Mount and the Haram-al-Sharif, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The city is also sacred in its entirety, not merely in terms of particular sites of a particular religion, but for all three religions. Moreover, Jerusalem is an integral part of the nation-building process for both Israelis and Palestinians, although Tel Aviv was the original locale for transforming the antiquated Hebrew of the Scriptures into the language of Zionism and one of the indispensable foundations required for self-determination among Jews in the land of their forebears.
Like Kashmir, Cyprus and Korea, Israel/Palestine is one of the ‘frozen’ international disputes still persisting over decades. Arab and Jewish nationalism claim the same territory, thus a solution could be found in the partition of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, leading to two states, one with a majority of Zionist Jews and the other a majority of Palestinian Arabs. This was the United Nations partition plan of 1947, rejected by the Arabs. Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Jordan occupied the West Bank and Egypt took Gaza, but in the 1967 war, Israel retook them both. Various solutions to the dispute were proposed over time: a Greater Palestine or Greater Israel in a one-state formula – which foundered because of the probability of a future Arab majority in such a state; a three-state confederation comprising Israel, Palestine and Jordan, and separating the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza into discrete units to isolate the Islamists in Gaza who never explicitly accept any Israeli state. The two-state solution, now commonly accepted by the international community, was always in serious doubt. The notion of a nation under siege is a sentiment evident in the dominant Israeli/Jewish psyche, and the Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem, which international opinion considers illegal, continue to grow apace with official Israeli encouragement.
The UN partition plan bestowed a special status upon Jerusalem with the intention of placing it under international sovereignty and control. In the 1948 war, the western part of the city was captured by Israel, and during the 1967 war, Israel seized the eastern half of Jerusalem from Jordanian control and extended Israeli jurisprudence, in the process violating international law and converting the Palestinians who had lived in Jerusalem for generations into ‘residents’. This annexation was formalized in 1980 when Israel passed a law that declared “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel”, whereupon the UN Security Council responded with Resolution 478, which pronounced the Israeli law “null and void”. According to the 1993 Israel-Palestinian peace accords, the status of Jerusalem is meant to be determined in bilateral peace talks. Meanwhile, the international community consensus considers East Jerusalem to be occupied territory. While some countries have consulates in Jerusalem, all embassies in Israel are located in Tel Aviv.
With this background, Trump’s announcement to keep his election promise and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has added multiple complications to the Israel-Palestine conflict, although Washington claims with sophistry that it takes no stand on city boundaries, status of holy sites or final status issues. It is also obvious that the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem would take several years to achieve. Trump’s move has been condemned on several counts; the most significant from the American point of view being that it renders any US-brokered peace between Israel and Palestine unacceptable to the Palestinians. The decision could well lead to a termination of peace negotiations since the Palestinians will never accept the premise that East Jerusalem cannot be the capital of a future Palestinian state, nor the Israelis that the city cannot be the capital of Israel. Of greater consequence is the fact that again the question of Palestinian national identity will be relegated to the back burner, even as it is already consigned to the margins in the Sunni-Shia regional battle, spearheaded respectively by Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Trump’s decision has incensed and alienated the Muslim world, and is opposed by the US’s major allies in the European Union and NATO. A draft resolution, which did not mention the US or Trump by name, before the UN Security Council was vetoed by the US, as it had 42 previous other resolutions on Israel. The US decision is likely to strengthen radical elements in Iran and the Arab world, encouraging them to raise the rhetoric against the West and provide embarrassment and confusion for the Arab countries closely allied to the US even as they attempt to justify their orientation. Intense prolonged protests in the region, such as the revival of a Palestinian intifada, have thus far been short-lived, primarily owing to the experience of the ‘Arab spring’ uprisings of 2010, when protesters had to face stringent repression from authoritarian regimes in several Arab states. The Palestinian reaction against Trump’s decision has thus far been subdued, replaced by the enduring character of their rejection of Israeli occupation.
Both the US and Israel have described Trump’s decision as belated recognition of existing reality, but the US action to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is due to domestic factors. Congress passed a Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995 which mandates relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv, and during his campaign Trump promised to implement this to win the support of Jews, pro-Israelis, the ultra-Right and evangelicals. Many of his key advisers are aligned with the Jewish lobby and antipathetic to the Palestinian cause. A basic reason is the lack of any understanding of the immense complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In short, the decision flows from an attitude that looks upon the Palestinians as a problem, obstacle or irritant. The US has followed Trump’s decision by stopping aid to the UN’s relief agency which provides education and health services for Palestinian refugees for which it was the main donor with 30 per cent of the budget.
India’s official response to Trump’s decision was deliberately ambiguous, with the external affairs spokesperson stating that “India’s position on Palestine is independent and consistent. It is shaped by our views and interests, and not determined by any third country”. Narendra Modi’s visit last year to Israel with no halt at the Palestinian ‘capital’ of Ramallah was credited with having brought the close India-Israel relationship into the open, even as defence and strategic ties were steadily increasing without publicity. But India was the first non-Arab nation to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1974 and one of the first to recognize the State of Palestine in 1988, and foreign policy continuity for support to the Palestinians was duly reaffirmed when, despite American threats, New Delhi joined 127 other countries to vote opposing Trump’s decision in an emergency special session of the UN General Assembly last December.
(The Telegraph, Kolkata)