(Republished from the NY Times) In the debate over a potential Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, no issue is more charged with emotion than the future of Jerusalem. Should the holy city be the capital of the Israelis alone or shared with the Palestinians?
Yet now, with no serious peace talks underway, President Trump is granting the Israelis’ wish and confounding the Palestinians by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the American Embassy there from Tel Aviv, thereby tossing aside decades of American diplomacy. Why?
Mr. Trump insists he is committed to achieving the “ultimate” Middle East peace agreement that eluded his predecessors. But his decision to tip the scales toward Israel on this critical matter, communicated to Arab and Israeli leaders on Tuesday, almost certainly will make an agreement harder to reach by inflaming doubts about America’s honesty and fairness as a broker in negotiations, raising new tension in the region and perhaps inciting violence.
Although Israel’s government has been located in Jerusalem since its founding in 1948, the United States, like the rest of the world, hasn’t recognized the city as Israeli territory, even after the Arab-Israeli War in 1967, when Israel drove back Jordan from East Jerusalem and occupied it. Under the Oslo Accords, Israel promised to negotiate Jerusalem’s future as part of a peace agreement. It has been assumed that under any deal, the city would remain its capital.
Palestinians anticipated being able to locate their capital in East Jerusalem, and to have access to Muslim holy sites there. East Jerusalem was exclusively Arab in 1967, but Israel has steadily built settlements there, placing some 200,000 of its citizens among the Arab population and complicating any possible peace agreement.
Mr. Trump boasts of being a consummate dealmaker, but dealmakers don’t usually make concessions before negotiations begin, as the president has here. The big winner is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, whose hard-line government has shown no serious interest in peace, at least not a two-state solution that could win Palestinian support.
The blowback was swift. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, warned of “dangerous consequences” to the peace process, while Jordan’s King Abdullah II, the royal palace said, cautioned against the move, “stressing that Jerusalem is the key to achieving peace and stability in the region and the world.”
Turkey threatened to cut diplomatic ties with Israel; other criticism came from Egypt, the Arab League and France. King Salman of Saudi Arabia told Mr. Trump a decision on Jerusalem before a final peace deal would hurt talks and increase regional tensions.
That Saudi warning might be expected, given that Jerusalem is home to the Aqsa Mosque and that the Saudi king holds the title of custodian of Islam’s two other holiest mosques, in Mecca and Medina.
A Saudi-sponsored Arab peace initiative still on the table calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem as part of a far-reaching deal. Yet the Saudis may well be edging away from that position. Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, has close ties to Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, who is drafting a comprehensive peace plan.
While that plan is not yet public, Crown Prince Mohammed is said to have outlined a proposal to Mr. Abbas last month that favoured the Israelis more than any proposal previously embraced by the American government. Palestinians would get limited sovereignty over a state that covers only noncontiguous parts of the West Bank. Most Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which most of the world considers illegal, would remain. The Palestinians would not get East Jerusalem as their capital, and there would be no right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
No Palestinian leader could accept such a plan and retain popular support, and the White House and Saudis denied they are working on such ideas. But some analysts doubt Mr. Trump really wants a peace agreement, and say any possible proposal may be intended as political cover so Israel and the Sunni Arabs, once enemies, can intensify their incipient collaboration against Iran.
The constituency Mr. Trump is most clearly courting is his own political base of evangelicals and other pro-Israel hard-liners. His predecessors had also made pandering campaign promises in support of moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem. But once in office they chose not to prioritize their domestic politics over delicate peace diplomacy, and they put that promise on hold.
Some optimists think that Mr. Trump could lessen the harm of a decision on Jerusalem by making clear he will not prejudge the future of East Jerusalem or other core questions like the borders of a Palestinian state. His track record so far gives little evidence that he has the temperament or skill to navigate such a nuanced position.
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