By Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
11 December 2017
When US President Donald Trump issued the “Presidential Proclamation Recognizing Jerusalem as the Capital of the State of Israel and Relocating the United States Embassy to Israel to Jerusalem” last week, the statement contained several caveats about what the proclamation does not mean, but those clarifications did not prevent unprecedented universal denunciation and worldwide protests. At the UN Security Council, all members, save the US, unanimously rejected it and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres castigated the move as inconsistent with UN resolutions, while even the US’ closest allies spoke out against it.
The Saudi Royal Court issued a strongly worded statement. Saudi Arabia had warned the US of the consequences of such an “irresponsible and unjustified step.” The statement expressed “denunciation and deep regret” because the move violated UN resolutions on Jerusalem and the historical and universally recognized rights of the Palestinian people in their homeland. The move was a “clear departure from previous US policy and a significant retreat in the efforts to promote Middle East peace.” It might indicate that the US had abandoned its role as an honest broker, “thus further complicating the search for peace.”
Saudi Arabia called on the US to reverse this step and re-join the international consensus on Jerusalem and Palestinian rights. The US clearly stood alone on this issue. Or rather the White House stood alone, as it is believed that the Departments of State and Defense, as well as the CIA, strongly opposed the move.
There is a global consensus on the legal status of Jerusalem, laid out in the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, which provided the key legal basis for resolving the Palestine question and determining the status of Jerusalem. According to that and subsequent UN resolutions, Jerusalem is an international entity, not part of the Jewish state, and East Jerusalem is Palestinian territory occupied since 1967. That is one reason why, until this week, no country has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and no embassy has ever been located in Jerusalem.
Because of its legal status, and the reverence with which Jerusalem is regarded by Jews, Christians and Muslims, it was agreed in previous negotiations to defer the Jerusalem issue to the “final status” stage, together with that of refugees.
The unilateral US statement is clearly inconsistent with that consensus and should not by itself change the legal status of West Jerusalem, or that of East Jerusalem. It is more disappointing because it is also inconsistent with recent US promises to “do everything possible” to achieve a comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians. In the most recent GCC-US summit, held in Riyadh on May 21, 2017, President Trump and GCC leaders “committed to work together to achieve a comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The leaders agreed to do everything they can to promote an environment that is conducive to advancing peace.” The Jerusalem proclamation is the exact opposite of this promise.
In the Manama Dialogue held at the weekend, the American move animated most regional security discussions. One speaker called it a “gift to radicalism.” Former US Gen. David Petraeus said that the move benefited only Israeli hard-liners and US enemies in the region. Other participants suggested that the move was made for narrow political objectives. In the US, the statement is a boon for the evangelical activists and other extremists, who could help the White House deal with the investigation into Russian meddling. In Israel, the move could help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he fights for his political survival.
On the hopeful side, Gen. Petraeus and others stressed that the proclamation did not preclude a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as capital of the Palestinian state. A lot depends on what the US does next, said Gen. Petraeus. Others said that the proclamation could become a watershed mark in the trajectory of the region, much like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
It is understandable for some to give in to despair, but it is more useful to take positive and practical steps to deal with this new development, either to reverse it completely or influence its implementation. Senior officials insist the proclamation is not a departure from previous US policies; that it does “not reflect a departure from the strong commitment of the United States to facilitating a lasting peace agreement,” and that “the United States continues to take no position on any final status issues. The specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The United States is not taking a position on boundaries or borders.” The proclamation further stresses that the US is still hoping for peace and “including through a two-state solution, if agreed to by both sides.” The US also “continues to support the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites,” another hot-button issue. The US further stressed its “long-standing commitment to building a future of peace and security in the Middle East.”
At a press conference held in Paris with the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that moving the embassy to Jerusalem could take some time: “This is not something that is going to happen this year, or probably not next year.”
For these reasons, and with the two-year deadline looming, it is important for US officials to engage constructively with the Palestinians and countries of the region to prevent this development from derailing the search for peace.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is a columnist for Arab News.