Dumbing down on Jerusalem

A year of missed opportunities

Israel’s great foreign minister, Abba Eban, once famously commented that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. That’s now the problem of democratic states. In the past year, they twice have had the opportunity to overcome the mental standstill which has afflicted their search for peace between Arabs and Israelis. In both cases, they botched it.

A year ago, democratic states supported a UN Security Council resolution (S/2334) which they argued simply reiterated their longstanding disagreement with Israel’s settlement policy, in the belief this would encourage the parties to negotiate. They were wrong on both counts. First, the resolution went beyond any previous resolution in declaring that:

the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.

By declaring East Jerusalem “Palestinian territory occupied”, the resolution effectively declared the ancient Jewish Quarter of the city including the Western Wall to be Palestinian — which never in history was true. Second, score another gain for the Palestinian leaders for which they didn’t have to make any concessions.

It takes a special kind of obtuseness to believe such a Security Council resolution would encourage either party to negotiate. In the past such a resolution would have been vetoed, but this time a spiteful and irresponsible outgoing US administration — in the interregnum between a presidential election and the inauguration of a new administration — abstained, handing the Palestinians another lawfare weapon with which to coerce an unwitting world.

One year later, after the Trump administration vetoed a UN Security Council resolution denouncing Washington’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, democratic states overwhelmingly supported a follow-up General Assembly resolution (GA/11995) which did so. Not a single member of NATO sided with the United States: 21 voted against the US and 7 abstained.

Once again, the democracies were under the impression their action would contribute to the peace, this time believing they were helping to preserve a “two-state” solution to the conflict. Again they were wrong. First by blithely assuming the Palestinians want a two-state solution, a proposition that has been in doubt for a hundred years; and secondly by effectively endorsing a conception of a two-state solution that no government of Israel — past, present, or future — could ever agree to in any negotiation, i.e. one in which not even West Jerusalem could be Israel’s capital.

To be specific: Democratic states missed the opportunity to stand firm on an important parameter of what might constitute a fair settlement, and they missed the opportunity to put the Palestinians on notice that they were on to their game of chiseling concessions out of a weary world rather than negotiating an agreed outcome. If the democracies want peace in the Middle East, this is a lamebrain way of going about it.

Recognizing Jerusalem

There is plain truth behind the US decision. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The question is why in their actions most states recognize that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, but go through such diplomatic contortions in order not to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Some facts. First, Israel exists, whatever its opponents might wish. It has been an independent state since May 1948 and a member of the United Nations since May 1949 — both of which democratic states endorsed. So why wouldn’t Israel have the same right as any other sovereign state to decide where to locate its capital?

Second, Israel declared Jerusalem to be its capital as long ago as December 1949 and the Knesset and all government departments have been located in the Western precincts of the city ever since. The only exception has been the Ministry of Defence which has remained in Tel Aviv for security reasons.

Third, when the Foreign Ministry was moved to Jerusalem in 1953, most foreign governments kept their embassies in Tel Aviv. The exceptions were the Netherlands, Greece, Guatemala, and Uruguay, who were later pressured to move back. All the others argued that moving their embassies to West Jerusalem (East Jerusalem was controlled by the Jordanians, not the Palestinians) would “connote” acceptance of Israeli control and would “prejudice” whatever final settlement was reached on the status of (all) Jerusalem. Curiously, it seems never to have occurred to those who subsequently established “consulates” in East Jerusalem (Belgium, the Holy See, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the UK) that doing so “connoted” acceptance of Palestinian control of East Jerusalem and was just as “prejudicial”. Why any democratic government could seriously hold open the possibility that there could be a “just and lasting peace” in which Israel might not retain possession even of the 15 square miles of West Jerusalem it has held since the founding of the state is astounding. But apparently they do.

Russia’s position, uniquely, is that East Jerusalem should be the capital of the future state of Palestine and that “in this context, we view West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel”. 

Fourth, reality kept intruding. Foreign diplomats in Tel Aviv had no choice but to travel up to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli officials and they have now been doing so for 70 years. When at first Tel Aviv-based diplomats boycotted official events in Jerusalem, Israel responded by refusing to accept the credentials of new ambassadors unless they presented them to the President of Israel in his Jerusalem office.  Ever since, not only ambassadors but foreign leaders have travelled to Jerusalem — including Egyptian President Sadat in 1977 (he went to both parts of the city), King Hussein of Jordan (he delivered a moving eulogy at the funeral of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Rabin in 1995), and most US presidents beginning with Richard Nixon: Bill Clinton four times, George W. Bush twice, Barack Obama twice, and Donald Trump once.

Finally, now that Israel controls all of Jerusalem there is zero prospect it would ever cede sovereignty over any part of the city, whether to allow it to be divided or “internationalized”.  These are options Israelis had to settle for in order to secure their nascent state. But after Jews were denied access to their Holy Places during the 20 years when Arabs controlled East Jerusalem, several wars of survival, two murderous “intifadas”, unsparing rocket attacks from Gaza, and feckless democratic states consistently sacrificing Israel for other interests, Israel is not about to return to the insecurities of 1967 let alone 1948. Nor could any force on earth compel any Israeli government to do so. As far as the Israelis are concerned, the territories are not “occupied” but fairly conquered and now belong to them.

So get used to it. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Take a look.

Feature image: Jerusalem skyline (en.wikipedia.org)

Paul H. Chapin

Paul Chapin is Executive Editor of The Vimy Report. During a 30-year career in the Canadian foreign service, he served in Tel Aviv, Moscow, at NATO, and in Washington where he was head of the political section. He can be reached at pchapin@rogers.com.

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