The challenge of Jerusalem

Abdel-Moneim Said
Monday 28 May 2018

The Israeli project succeeded in establishing itself and persisting because of its ability to work with realities on the ground. The Palestinians and Arabs must do likewise

A bit of water has passed under the bridge since the double ceremony in Jerusalem celebrating the anniversary of the establishment of the Hebrew state and the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to symbolise Washington’s recognition of that city as the eternal capital of Israel.

The move came as no surprise. US President Donald Trump had made it one of his electoral campaign pledges. He reiterated his intent to fulfil that pledge after entering the White House.

Anyone who imagined that these were idle words only had to look at the type of ambassador he appointed to Israel or listen to the many discussions about the size, shape and cost of the new embassy premises in Jerusalem and to the debate over whether it was preferable to wait a year for the construction of a billion-dollar compound or to spend $400,000 to equip an existing building so that the inauguration could take place at the promised time.

So, the move was expected. Yet, when reality struck, we saw the same reaction that occurs every time Israel outpaces the Palestinians and the countries of the Arab League.

Protests erupted, as always. A collection of Palestinian youth staged “right of return” demonstrations, resulting in 62 dead and hundreds of wounded. The Arab League convened an emergency session at the delegate level.

The Arab media outlets spoke of a massacre, as they do on each occasion, and cried out, “where are you, Arab brothers?” without specifying — as usual — what they expect the Arab brothers to do.

The Palestinians are caught up in the events. They know all the rites and rituals. They have a wealth of experience in confrontation and negotiation and in all forms, jihad and struggle..

But none of this expertise appears to have helped the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people remedy their inability to forge a reconciliation and solidify ranks.

Despite all the commotion surrounding events in Jerusalem, what was foremost in Palestinian minds at this time was who was responsible for the assassination attempt against the Palestinian prime minister during his recent visit to Gaza.

Meanwhile, the young men who went up to the border to demand the right of return scored a point with the international press, as though that was what mattered.

As a result, the youths were not equipped to sustain the march or to attract youth from the West Bank to join the march. Then Ramadan set in and the seasonal struggle began to fade after a river of blood and a sea of tears were shed.

The Arab League called for an international commission to investigate Israeli crimes against the Palestinians. It may have scored a diplomatic point that, perhaps, may ease consciences.

But it does not pave the way to an effective handling of the original Palestinian cause or even the related question of Jerusalem.

This is not because the world has grown insensitive. It sees the conditions in the region as they are. But whereas once the Palestinian refugee question was the leading cause, the phenomenon became global with the processions of refugees from Central America to the US and floods of refugees from other Arab countries, such as Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

Still, the Arab world as not forgotten Palestine or Jerusalem. However, Arab countries cannot drop all the domestic and foreign policies they have to deal with, not least of which is terrorism and its close connections to a certain Palestinian organisation that, according to all public opinion polls, enjoys the support of the Palestinian people.

The opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem was a true loss for the Palestinian people and the cause of peace in the region.

Yet, a no less significant a loss is in the countries that sent delegates to the inaugural ceremony, because this means that the US embassy will not be the last. Thirty-two countries attended the event.

Among them were four from the EU (Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Austria) and 11 from Africa, some with close ties with the Arab region, such as Ethiopia, South Africa and Tanzania, and others that had long supported the Palestinian struggle, such as Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Seven South American countries were also present, two of which (Guatemala and Uruguay) have already announced their intention to move their embassies to Jerusalem immediately, and four Asian countries attended, most notably Vietnam whose cause was once championed by the Arabs, although now it has switched camps.

True, 56 countries turned down the invitation to attend. But the support that helped confer a certain form of legitimacy to the move was still considerable and, moreover, a sign that the overwhelming international majority that the Arabs had once counted on to support the Palestinians and the cause of peace in this region has diminished.

Sooner than we expect, the world will grow accustomed to the de facto reality and the transfer of embassies to Jerusalem will be given the added impetus of existing realities on the ground.

One wonders whether the Arab League and Arab embassies around the world knew that all those countries would attend and, if they did, whether Arab governments and diplomats tried to prevent this from happening. Or did bilateral relations win out in the end?

Whatever the answer, all disasters and setbacks bring both risks and opportunities. But acting on this knowledge requires a different way of thinking. For example, Jerusalem has had a special value for Arab Muslims, Christians and Jews throughout the ages.

Regardless of the height of Israeli arrogance, it cannot go so far as to prevent Muslims from visiting Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and it cannot prevent Christians from visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

As long as Israel has “internationalised” the city by having embassies move there, then the Arabs have the ability to make it an Arab international city if millions of Arabs of all religions went there to perform the rites and rituals of their faiths.

Such an approach would support the 350,000 Palestinian residents in Jerusalem in their steadfastness against the waves of Judaicisation and expulsion, and perhaps in their bid to increase their representation in the Jerusalem municipality.

This would not legitimise the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem. It would make Jerusalem a binational city and, simultaneously, an international one that is open to all faiths and cultures.

Israel is in a position to win the whole Palestinian prize. What remains in Gaza is internationally condemned because of Hamas/Muslim Brotherhood rule there and what remains in the West Bank is rejected, firstly, because of its incompetence in managing the struggle and, secondly, because of its failure to realise the most basic condition of statehood, which is monopoly of the legitimate use of arms.

The Israeli project succeeded in establishing itself and persisting because of its ability to work with realities on the ground. Today, the Arabs and the Palestinians need to identify the realities that they can establish on the ground in a framework that the world can understand, accept and approve. That is the crucial challenge.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The challenge of Jerusalem

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