The main obstacle to the peace in the Middle East

On January 24th, Israel approved the construction and the planning of about 2,500 new housing units in the settlements located in the West Bank.  On January 22nd, the local planning and building committee in Jerusalem also approved the construction of 560 building units beyond the Green Line, in the Holy City. “We are building and we will continue to build”, Israeli President Netanyahu commented. A month ago, on December 23rd, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2334 with the only abstention of United States ambassador Samantha Power. The event gained symbolic significance since an initiative tabled by Senegal, Venezuela, Malaysia and New Zealand was able to bring together China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom, and send an important message to Israel. The members of the Council declared that “Israel’s establishment of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, had no legal validity, constituting a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the vision of two States living side-by-side in peace and security, within internationally recognized borders.[1]

The resolution is not binding and has a mere declaratory status of recommendation. Despite of this, the Palestinian Authority welcomed the outcome of the UNSC meeting, perceiving it as a symbolic victory. On the other hand, the Israeli counterpart, by defining the Resolution “shameful, reckless and destructive[2], highlighted how the international community is wrongfully addressing settlements as the main obstacle to the peace in the Middle East, without even mentioning the Palestinian reluctance to negotiation and the surge of violent protests triggered both in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. By revamping the construction in the occupied territory, Israel reiterated his willingness to maintain a prominent role in the life of the Palestinians in the West Bank, despite the adoption of the UNSC Resolution.

In this context, the new American Presidency is certainly playing a consistent role.

If Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Ambassador John Kerry openly rebuked Netanyahu and his political vision, Donald Trump has been standing on the other side of the podium. Hence, since the AIPAC 2016 Policy Conference– The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, a well-known powerful pro-Israeli lobby in the United States of America – , the then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addressed the public as a “life-long supporter and true friend of Israel”, whose “number one priority” was to dismantle the Deal with Iran, which he recognised as catastrophic for the US, Israel and the Middle East as a whole. He also addressed the “weaknesses and incompetence” of the United Nations, which “is not a friend to democracy and freedom.” Stressing his willingness to straighten out the UN. In the same occasion, Trump mentioned President Obama – in his final year, yay! – as “the worst thing that ever happened to Israel.” It is clear that the wind of change blowing in Washington is on its way to Jerusalem. Trump’s nominee as US ambassador to Israel confirms this idea: David Friedman, bankruptcy lawyer and long-standing adviser of President Trump, will be in charge of keeping alive and prosperous the special relationship between the US and the Jewish State. Ambassador Friedman, who is close to the Israeli right wing party and also serves as president of American Friends of Bet El Institutions, which financially supports the settlement enterprise, already happened to assume that the settlements in Judea and Samaria did not constitute an illegal practice. Moreover, he embraces that line of thought according to which Jerusalem, united and indivisible, represents the capital of the Jewish State. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 181 (II), issued on November 29th 1947, partitioned the land of the British Palestine Mandate in two states, one Jewish and one Arab, and established Jerusalem as a separate entity under the aegis of the UN Trusteeship Council. Despite this settlement, the outcome of the 1948 hostilities put West Jerusalem under Israel’s control and East Jerusalem, including the Old City, under Jordan’s administration.

Both parties ignored the UN Resolution.

In January 1950, Israel proclaimed Jerusalem as its capital city and moved there all of its governmental and parliamentary institutions. The Israeli presence in the Holy City was then strengthened after the Six-day War of 1967, when East Jerusalem was annexed to the Jewish State. In 1980, the Israeli Parliament issued the Jerusalem Basic Law, through which it officially stated that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” The UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 478, issued in August 1980, recognized the proclamation as illegal under international law, but without being able to bring any concrete change, as the city remained under the aegis of the Israeli State including East Jerusalem. It incorporated an additional area approximate 64 square kilometers from the West Bank, including a territory that previously consisted of 28 villages and areas of the Bethlehem and Beit Jala municipalities. As UNSC has consistently reiterated, this illegal annexation of East Jerusalem has led not only to the illegal construction of Israeli settlements in the Arab part of the city, but also to the systematic demolition of countless Palestinian houses. Nevertheless, Israel alone considers Jerusalem as its capital, due to the presence of its main institutions, and the holy sites of the Jewish religion. The rest of the world does not recognise the Holy City as formal capital of the State of Israel and the states have established their embassies in Tel Aviv.

This may change with President Trump and Ambassador Friedman in office, as both have welcomed the idea of moving the US Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This play is more dangerous that it seems and, as the King of Jordan has correctly pointed out, it would be a “gift to extremists.”[3]

The protests erupted in the autumn of 2015 were linked to competitive claims on the religious sites inside the Old City. It further confirmed the importance that the city of Jerusalem assumes not only for the Israelis, but also for the Palestinians who strive for the creation of an independent Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital, the Old City included. Both peoples have claims over what they see as their homeland. Just before President-elect Trump took office, on January 15th the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs was the promoter and organiser of a Conference for the Middle East Peace Process in Paris, gathering about 70 representatives of governments and international organisations. The conference should have been the second step of a process started in June last year, when a preparatory meeting should have later brought Israeli and Palestinian leaderships together, to somehow re-inaugurate a season of peace negotiations. But the Israeli opposed to attend to the conference, being against any kind of international fora imposed negotiation and reiterating the importance of direct ones. Finally, senior French officials reviewed the format of the conference in a sort of High Level Meeting that would have not only put together key regional and international players to encourage the counterparts to resume peace negotiations, but also conveyed a message to the US President-elect about the importance the international community ascribes to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the extent of international consensus.

Hence, the conference did not to produce any practical decision; rather it revived the importance of the Middle East Peace Process.

If his advisers have forcefully opposed the Paris Conference, President Trump strives to achieve this ultimate deal, and he wants to do so with the help of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who should serve as Middle East peace broker. If the objective seems clear – to him, the process does not. The first lesson Trump should learn is that American willpower alone cannot replace the will and ability of the parties themselves to make the necessary compromises to achieve the deal. However, a strong international – especially American – willpower is key. If on the one hand the Israeli leadership refuses the internationally sponsored peace negotiations, on the other hand, Netanyahu and other Israeli officials do not seem keen on sitting at the table with Abbas in Jerusalem. The Israeli settler movement and its supporters in Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government regard the West Bank as part of the Land of Israel and firmly reject the two-state solution. The PM does not engage in negotiations also not to put in danger its coalition, and its government.

The second element is a weak Palestinian leadership which does not have an easy mandate to fulfill: on top of the political representation, both Gaza and West Bank politicians must address the issues related to the creation of a functional Palestinian state. Doing so, with an ideologically and geographically separated polity, displaced and dispersed people who live under the occupation or in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, not collaborative counterpart and a substantially impotent international community, seems to be hard, if not impossible. After more than ten years in the office, President Abbas presides over a Palestinian dysfunctional political reality: not only the divide between the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is still alive and deep, but the Palestinian government itself is very much corrupted, inefficient and lacking both legitimacy and accountability vis-à-vis the Palestinian community.

The situation generates a political dilemma: if in the past years the American leadership’s feeling towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stayed in the middle between the waging parties, Obama and Ambassador Kerry were not capable of fostering the peace building process either. This is to confirm that the situation on the ground is the first and most important variable to take into consideration, and working on the Israeli détente and on Palestinian good governance and rule of law is the key action to undertake.

Are President Trump and his advisers aware of and sympathetic to the whole of a system status quo on the field?

Considering that the first action they want to implement is to take control of Jerusalem, the answer may be no. Jerusalem is a delicate issue that should be tackled when all the others have been solved.  President Trump has so far taken many unconventional choices. What he will decide to do with the Middle East may add to the list. Is a wait-and-see approach that the other actors of the global political system should adopt? Or it may be too late to take restorative actions when the situation would have already degenerated?  As John Lyndon, the Executive Director of OneVoice has rightfully said, “We are hurtling toward that precipice now, and all eyes must turn toward the 14 million Arabs and Jews, intertwined and roughly equal in number, who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Real change will require ordinary citizens stepping up, getting organised, and demanding a genuine break from history. Their fate is in their own hands. Despite all their internal dysfunction, looking at the state of the world in 2017, that could be very good news indeed.”


 

References and Notes

John Lyndon, 19 January 2017, “In the Trumo Era, Israelis and Palestinians Must Find Their Own Path to Peace, TIME, http://time.com/4638117/trump-israel-palestinian-resolution-2334/

Elliott Abrams and Uri Sarot, 04 December 2016, “President Trump and the Art of the ultimate Israel Palestine Peace Deal”, Foreign Policy, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/12/04/president-trump-and-the-art-of-the-ultimate-israel-palestine-peace-deal/

“Trump taps David Friedman as U.S. Ambassador to Israel”, Haaretz http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.759434

Barak Ravid, 12 November 2016, “Trump: I Intend to Achieve the ‘Ultimate Deal’ – Israeli-Palestinian Peace”, http://www.haaretz.com/world-news/u-s-election-2016/.premium-1.752681

[1] UN Security Council, Press Release (2016, December 23) Israel’s Settlements Have No Legal Validity, Constitute Flagrant Violation of International Law, Security Council Reaffirms.

[2] Ferziger J. And Arnold M. (2016, December 12) What UN Vote on Israeli Settlements Means — and What’s Next, Bloomberg.

[3] Ravis D. and Khoury J. (2017, January 7) Kerry: Trump Moving U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem Would Lead to a Mideast Explosion, Haaretz.