Tuesday,19 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1373, (14 - 20 December 2017)
Tuesday,19 February, 2019
Issue 1373, (14 - 20 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A united front on Jerusalem

The decision by US President Donald Trump to move the US Embassy in Israel to the occupied city of Jerusalem has met with universal condemnation, writes Hany Ghoraba

A week is a long time in politics, and certainly the first week of December 2017 proved to be one of the longest in the Arab world over recent years. This was due to US President Donald Trump executing the 1995 US Jerusalem Embassy Act to relocate the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the occupied city of Jerusalem in an unprecedented step that complicates an already very complex and turbulent Middle East. 

The decision to move the embassy was preceded by a number of telephone calls made by Trump to leaders in the Middle East including President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, King Salman of Saudi Arabia and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas informing them of his intention. Aware of the dire consequences on the ground and the stagnant Palestinian-Israeli peace process, the leaders warned the American president against taking this risky step. This was a warning Trump chose to ignore for mainly domestic political reasons. 

 President Al-Sisi has been making major efforts over the past three years to bring the Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table. Egypt hosted talks among the Palestinian factions aiming at their reconciliation under one banner such that they could then enter final settlement talks with the Israelis. Al-Sisi has also called upon Israeli citizens multiple times to embrace the peace negotiations and to lobby their leaders to return to the negotiating table. He has conducted multiple talks with Israeli, European and American leaders to push the peace process forwards.

The Egyptian leadership decided to tackle Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem on an international political level by calling, along with seven other nations, for an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council. The session aimed to address the consequences of the decision on the already struggling peace process, and Egyptian Ambassador to the UN Amr Abul-Atta eloquently warned of the possible collapse of international law were nations to continue making such unilateral decisions.

Reactions from Arab leaders to Trump’s decision were varied, but they were mostly calm and diplomatic. The reactions from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other Gulf States were similar, with these countries all expressing their “sorrow and disapproval” of the US action. They stressed that unilateral actions by the United States could have serious ramifications for the entire region. 

Saudi Arabia expressed its “extreme concern” at the US decision, while Abbas speaking on behalf of the PA said that as a result of Trump’s action the United States was no longer a legitimate sponsor of peace between the Palestinians and Israelis since the US administration had decided openly to support Israel. However, the harshest reaction from an Arab country came from Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil who after delivering a strong statement calling for Arab unity during an emergency session of the Arab League demanded that diplomatic and even economic sanctions be placed on the United States. 

Whether the Arab leaders will decide to up the ante and increase the pressure on Trump or not is unclear, but it is not entirely unlikely. The reason for this is due mainly to the fact that Trump’s decision is not simply a form of US support for Israel, which the Arab leaders are already well aware of, but that it is also changes the realities on the ground and tosses decades of hard work on the peace process in the rubbish bin. 

The Arab countries’ position is also in alignment with that of all the European Union countries, including the United Kingdom, France and Germany, along with world powers such as China and Russia. These countries believe, along with most other members of the United Nations, that the fate of Jerusalem should remain a subject of negotiation, while the division of the city as the shared capital of Israel and a new Palestinian state should be the only practical solution in this five-decade conflict.

At the emergency meeting of the foreign ministers of the Arab League, the representatives reiterated their disapproval and condemnation of the relocation of the US embassy, labelling it a breach of international law and of UN Security Council resolutions 465, 475, 478 and 2334 which prohibit altering the status of occupied territories or their identities. The foreign ministers also called upon other nations not to consider moving their own embassies to Jerusalem. 

In a statement released at the end of the meeting, the Arab foreign ministers warned of provocations and attempts to alter the multi-religious character of the city of Jerusalem, which has a strong Muslim, Christian and Jewish identity. The statement called upon the United States to revise its decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and upon the UN Security Council to issue a statement confirming the illegality of the US decision. Arab leaders are vehemently calling on other countries to explain their stance and to reject Trump’s decision. 

Jerusalem and the Palestinian cause represent a main sticking point in the Arab-Israeli conflict despite other feuds exacerbated in the post-Arab Spring era. The Palestinian cause and the right of the Palestinian people to establish their own state with East Jerusalem as its capital remain non-negotiable cornerstones of Arab diplomacy, especially in the wake of the Arab peace initiative of 2002 that was based on the principle of land for peace. 

The Palestinian cause will continue to be the elephant in the room for years, and it will remain a uniting factor for all Arab countries until a final peace agreement is reached between the Palestinians and the Israelis and consequently between the Arabs and the Israelis.

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.

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