By Abdur Rahman Chowdhury
April 30, 2014
This is not the first time the peace process has been abandoned. Notwithstanding a highly biased policy towards Israel, the Palestinians accepted the mediation of the US. They made concession after concession and waited too long but they were betrayed by Israel and let down by the US
The 1948 war between the Arabs and Israelis resulted in the bifurcation of the holy city Jerusalem. The eastern part of the city was retained by Jordan and the western part was occupied by the newly created state of Israel. The city remained divided until the 1967 war when Israel scored a decisive military victory over its Arab neighbours and brought the entire city under its control. Israel also occupied the West Bank of the Jordan River, Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula. Israel became double in size and remained undecided on what to do with the occupied land. The Arabs, deeply humiliated in the weeklong war, resolved to recover the lost territory. They tried again in 1973, inflicted significant casualties on Israel but could not regain the lost territory. In retaliation, Israel began annexing the occupied territory and Jerusalem was no exception.
Since the early 1990s, Israel began relocating its administrative offices and ministries from its capital, Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem and declared it its new capital. It asked the governments that had accorded recognition to Israel to shift their embassies to Jerusalem. None, including its strong ally the US, acceded to the request. Undeterred at the international reaction, Israel established its de facto capital in Jerusalem.
In 1993, at the mediation of President Bill Clinton, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) signed a peace agreement, which called for the creation of Palestine encompassing the land Israel had occupied in the 1967 war. Israel by then had already withdrawn from Sinai and negotiations were going on with Syria with regard to the Golan Heights. The peace negotiations reached a fork when both parties laid claim on Jerusalem. Israel referred to thousands of years of its history and claimed ownership of the city. Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, said it was beyond his competence to withdraw the claim on Jerusalem as the city enjoys a spiritual value not only to the Palestinians but the 1.2 billion Muslims who consider this as their third holiest city. The issue was deferred to future parleys while both sides remained firm on their claim.
Now a case on this issue has found itself on the desk of the US Supreme Court. A US couple has filed a petition claiming that their son was born in a Jerusalem hospital in 2002 and that they wanted their son’s passport to mention he was born in Israel. The couple’s attorney argued that 150,000 children of US parents born in Tel Aviv and Haifa had mentioned Israel as their birthplace and his client’s son should fall under this category as well. The policy of the State Department is “only Jerusalem to be mentioned” as a mark of neutrality over national sovereignty of the holy city. Congress passed a law in 2002 that stated US children born in Jerusalem may request their birthplace to be listed as Israel. This law appeared congruent with the policy of the State Department and, by extension, of the government. The solicitor general argued that it was a political question, not subject to judicial review and must be worked out between the two branches of the government. The Supreme Court ruled on April 21 that it would decide whether Congress or the State Department had the final say to acknowledge Jerusalem as part of Israel. According to The Washington Post, the case will be due for hearing when the term begins in October 2014.
Meanwhile, the peace talks between Israel and Palestine have reached a deadlock. Secretary of State John Kerry’s imposed redline to reach an agreement within six months has rolled to the 10th month with no sign of progress. Palestinians are losing patience at the continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem, and Israel’s refusal to set prisoners free. Israel has decided to withhold payment of around a billion dollars collected as customs revenue in retaliation for the Palestinian Authority’s decision to seek membership of UN agencies. Fatah and Hamas, two fractions of the Palestinians, have acquiesced in a reconciliation process and Prime Minister Netanyahu retaliated by postponing further talks with the Palestinians. John Kerry admitted the peace process had been stalled but refused to acknowledge it had collapsed.
Leaving aside semantics, it can be fair to characterise that the peace process has moved into the doldrums and the situation has reverted back to the Bush era. Renunciation of the peace talks will have far reaching consequences for the entire region and, by extension, the US. President Carter in his book, Peace not Apartheid, wrote, “Peace will come to Israel and the Middle East only when the Israeli government is willing to comply with international law, with a roadmap for peace…and honour its own previous commitments by accepting its legal borders. The United States is squandering international prestige and goodwill, and intensifying global anti-American terrorism by unofficially condoning or abetting Israeli confiscation and colonisation of Palestinian territory. It will be a tragedy if peace is rejected and a system of oppression, apartheid and sustained violence is permitted to prevail.”
This is not the first time the peace process has been abandoned. Notwithstanding a highly biased policy towards Israel, the Palestinians accepted the mediation of the US. They made concession after concession and waited too long but they were betrayed by Israel and let down by the US. The irony is that the State Department has never attempted to ascertain what led the peace process into jeopardy. The US has always joined the chorus with Israel and has accused the Palestinians of numbing peace initiatives.
The Obama administration accorded priority to diplomacy over belligerency in resolving international disputes. It wound up the war in Iraq and is rolling back the war in Afghanistan. However, its record in peace building during the past five years has been an errant failure. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu dismissed the US plea to cease settlements in the occupied territories and make an overture for peace. Netanyahu downplayed the US/EU rapprochement with Tehran and asked instead that the US government strike nuclear installations in Iran.
The Ukraine crisis has a message: it signals that the Cold War era is on the horizon. The US has imposed sanctions against Russia following the Crimean annexation. Now tension has engulfed the entire north and eastern region of Ukraine where separatists are striving to join Russia. The US is now considering imposing a second round of sanctions against Russia. Washington-Moscow relations have turned acrimonious and may lead to a realignment of countries between two hostile blocs. Russia is being resurrected as a superpower and countries aggrieved by US policies and actions will be embraced by Moscow. Russian allies will be eligible for diplomatic support, economic assistance and military hardware. Polarisation will begin from the Middle East.
The resurgence of the Cold War and the polarisation of nations around the globe will make the search for peace extremely difficult. The strategic expediency of the superpowers will outweigh the merits of the dispute. The Palestinian issue, like Tibet, Nagorno-Karabakh and Kashmir, has remained unresolved during the Cold War and post-Cold War era. It will be interesting to see whether these problems will at all be addressed during the re-emerging Cold War. Jerusalem in the meantime will remain a disputed territory but it belongs neither to Israel nor to US citizens born in Israel. Jerusalem belongs to the people of Palestine and none else.