For anyone with an interest in the ebb and flow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, December 2017 has proven to be an extremely intriguing and surprising month.
On 6th December, the world found that, true to his word, President of the United States of America, Donald Trump declared that the US would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (The Independent, 6th December 2017: The Guardian, 7th December 2017). In response, Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas declared in a speech to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, that Jerusalem “is a Palestinian Arab Muslim Christian city, the eternal capital of the state of Palestine. There can be no Palestinian state without the city of Jerusalem as its capital” and that the Palestinians were “no longer committed to any agreement from Oslo until today” (Palestinian News and Info Agency, 13thDecember 2017; Jewish News Service, December 13th 2017). Furthermore, on Thursday 14th December, Abbas called for the recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine, a position taken and formally recognised by the OIC (The Guardian, 13thDec 2017).
Though much has been said about in relation to the impact on the United States position in the Middle East and the world in general, what is the impact on the Oslo Peace Process between the Israelis and the Palestinians?
Have we seen the final, fatal wound to the Oslo Peace Process? Or is this a controversial first step in a fresh and unorthodox approach to revive a stalled peace process?
What is the Oslo Peace Process?
On 13th September 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat, symbolically shook hands on the lawn of the White House, sealing the Oslo I Agreement negotiated between the two parties which offered the possibility of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Booth and Wheeler, 2008, p. 245; Cronin, 2009, p. 50; Tessler, 2009, p. 763). Oslo I was a framework for negotiations rather than a content-based agreement that dealt with final terms (Gelvin, 2005, pp. 234-235).
According to Oslo I, the final settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians was to be based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. This effectively meant that in theory at least, the border between Israel and the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem would follow the 1949 Armistice lines originally drawn up between Israel and Egypt and Jordan. Under UNSC Resolution 242, Israel was to withdraw from territories it occupied in 1967 and UNSC Resolution 338 reinforced the importance of UNSC Resolution 242 and of peace negotiations (Tessler, 2009, p. 761; El-Atrash, 2016, p. 370). Crucially the Oslo I agreement left the most difficult elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict such as borders, settlements, the status of Jerusalem, division of water resources and the Palestinian refugee issue until the final status negotiations which were originally to be concluded by May 1999 (Slater, 2001, p. 177).
Between 1993-2000, the Israelis and the Palestinians signed seven major agreements yet the subsequent Camp David Summit, which set out to resolve all final-status issues and result in a comprehensive and permanent settlement between the two sides, failed to bring about an agreement and was followed swiftly by the eruption of the Al-Aqsa Intifada on the 29th September 2000 (Rubenberg, 2003, pp. 61, 81; Tessler, 2009, p. 818). At the heart of much of the contestation has been what to do with Jerusalem.
Why does Jerusalem Matter?
As a result of the 1948 War, Jerusalem was divided into Jewish/Israeli West and Arab/Palestinian East Jerusalem until the 1967 war when the eastern part of the city was captured by Israel and the city was unified (El-Atrash, 2016, p. 370).
The status of Jerusalem is a sensitive issue for both sides due to Israeli and Palestinian desires for it to serve as their national capitals and their connection to holy sites namely the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif which is sacred to Jews as the site of the temple of worship and whilst it is seen as the third most important city in Islam after Mecca and Medina. Indeed, in the 2000 Camp David Summit, Jerusalem was recognised as the “one of the most difficult issues to resolve”. The Second Intifada by the Palestinians against Israel between 2000-2004 was triggered by the visit of Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to protest for the right of Jews to pray there (Caplan, 2010, pp. 207-208; Smith, 2017, p. 439).
Because of the connection between Jerusalem and the national identities of both Palestinians and Israelis, it has been at the heart of both the “protracted political conflict”, the peace negotiations and the existing stalemate (El-Atrash, 206, p. 373). Sooner or later, you’ve got to talk about Jerusalem and talk about it in a way that could offer a means to break the stalemate.
The Stalled Process
We have not got much further than that and indeed the current situation has been that the PLO/Palestinian Authorities have focused on a strategy of “internationalizing” the conflict through the United Nations. This has been done through the 2009 Palestine 194 Campaign which aimed to make Palestine the 194th state of the UN which resulted in the 2012 passing of General Assembly resolution 6719 which granted Palestine non-member observer status, In addition the Palestinians have looked to the International Criminal Court, through signing the Rome Statute and through other international bodies to put pressure on Israel as well as support from the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. There has been a decline in the domestic support and legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas who has served as President of the Palestinian Authority for a decade or so whilst Hamas has continued to maintain control of Gaza Strip and continued its staunch rejection of the existence of Israel. Having won the 2015 Elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to support the continued construction of settlements in East Jerusalem as part of the vision of an “unified indivisible Jerusalem” and asserted that continued control over the Palestinian territory was necessary for Israel’s security given regional instability and Islamic extremism. At the same time there has been the continued growth and spread of Israeli settlers and settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (Scheindlin and Waxman, 2016, p. 84; Turner and Hussein, 2015, pp. 416-417).
Despite all this we haven’t actually seen the complete demise of the Oslo Peace Process. It survives though effectively in a political coma; alive but not functioning yet it could pass away at any time or come back to life either as it was before or return changed with a new outlook, ideas and actors. What has been missing has a shift in the status quo to kick-start the process back into life and pull it out of its comatose state.
Could the recent US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital provide an opportunity?
If anyone was going to challenge the status quo it was only to be a wild-card individual new to the international political arena and it would be fair to say that US President Donald Trump is definitely a wild-card individual to use non-colourful language.
In his statement, President Trump argued that his declaration was “the beginning of a new approach” in which he sought to give “recognition of reality” that in practical terms, the city of Jerusalem was the de facto capital of Israel as the seat of its government saying;
It is the home of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, as well as the Israeli Supreme Court. It is the location of the official residence of the Prime Minister and the President. It is the headquarters of many government ministries
Trump argued that in recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the US was not “taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders” (Whitehouse Press Release, 6thDecember 2017). In a way Trump have point given that for the two-state solution to work Jerusalem (part of it) would have to be the capital of Israel at least.
Now I am a bit of an optimist but also I am acutely aware that in politics as in life, things are not always quite what they appear and that there is always something going on behind-the-scenes. Taking Trump’s two points together (and assuming that there is a coherent policy somewhere under pinning this) I believe the US administration may well be seeking to solidify support for Israel’s retention of West Jerusalem, captured in 1949 and declared by David Ben-Gurion as the capital of Israel and is the site of the Knesset, Yad Vashem (the memorial-museum to the Holocaust), the Israel Museum and its Shrine of the Book (which hold the Dead Sea scrolls) as well as important neighbourhoods like Rechavia and German Colony, without actually endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision of a “unified indivisible Jerusalem” (Turner and Hussein, 2015, p. 416; Sasley and Sucharow, 2011, p. 1008).
By doing so, the US administration could be trying to move the debate regarding the status of Jerusalem towards a division of the city, West and East, in which the city could serve as the capital of both Israel and Palestine. Indeed the basis of the two-state solution which Trump stated the US “would support…if agreed to by both sides” is based on the establishment of a independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with agreed mutual land exchanges and removal of settlements and with Jerusalem as some sort of shared capital for both Israel and an independent Palestine (White House Press Release, 6th December 2017: Bland, 2014, p. 183). It is a stretch I know and it assumes that behind recent US actions there is a rational and coherent political policy but only time will tell where this sits within the as of yet unrevealed Trump Middle East Peace Plan – the deal of the century or so he would no doubt hope.
As El-Atrash stated “the two-state solution is acknowledged as a political compromise…that basically does not require substantial changes to the situation on the ground” (2016, p. 375). Given that Trump has already claimed to be taking a pragmatic approach in recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel it seems fair to assume that he may also take a “recognition of reality” view to the establishment of two separate areas of the city, West and East Jerusalem, under Israelis and Palestinian control respectively or some model in between (White House Press Release, December 6th 2017). Trump did not state how much of Jerusalem would be considered part of Israel nor did he state that East Jerusalem could not be the capital of a future Palestinian state and he did not rule out a division of the city into parts (The Guardian, Thursday 7th December 2017). Though Israel has claimed the whole of Jerusalem, the Palestinians have been prepared to recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as seen in the Beilin-Abu Mazen Accord of October 1995 whilst the Palestinian state capital would be on the outskirts of the municipal boundary of Jerusalem (Shlaim, 2015, p. 576).
The division of the city is seen as the most likely outcome to establish separate Israeli and Palestinian authorities due to the unacceptability of placing the whole city under the control of one of the conflict parties as well as the complexities of overlapping claims to religious sites and the presence of different identity groups (Hunter and Jones, 2004, p. 208).
It remains to be seen whether the US’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is the first step in a yet unrevealed scheme to provoke the renewal of the Oslo Peace Process by challenging the status quo regarding Jerusalem or a single political act of a controversial US president. We will have to wait and see as it is still unclear what the Israelis offered in return and why this move was made before a return to substantial Israeli-Palestinian talks (The Guardian, 7th December 2017).
In my opinion I don’t think the Oslo Peace Process is dead nor do I think that Trump’s recent move has inflicted a fatal wound rather it is a controversial first step in a fresh and unorthodox approach which could revive the stalled peace process by radically challenging the status quo. It was provocative and broke with long-standing international approaches to resolving the process, and in doing so has provoked a reaction from all sides. The question remains where this sits within the as yet unrevealed US Middle East Peace Plan and I hope (optimistically) that it isn’t a one off domestic political move but part of a broader (and unorthodox) plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Only time will tell if I was naïve but I going to keep my eyes peeled and I encourage the reader to do the same!
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Article by David Wilcox
Photograph – Al Jazeera