As a candidate in the 2016 election season Donald Trump often talked of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was easy enough to dismiss. After all, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had made the same promise before winning the White House.
This time around might be different. For a start, David Friedman sounds like a very different kind of U.S. ambassador to Israel. Here’s Friedman responding to Trump endorsing him for the post: “I intend to work tirelessly to strengthen the unbreakable bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region, and look forward to doing this from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
Should the United States relocate its embassy to Jerusalem? A lot of opinion in Australia is against it, although Tony Abbott saw merit in the idea. Australia joining a move by President Trump to shift its embassy to Jerusalem could “demonstrate its unswerving support for Israel, as the Middle East’s only liberal, pluralist democracy”. Members of the Turnbull government rebuffed “talkative” Abbott’s latest idea. Shifting the embassy would exacerbate an already problematic situation, especially with regards to the “two-state solution”. Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce referred to Abbott’s comments as “not helpful”, while Foreign Minister Julie Bishop gave her former leader short shrift: “The Australian government does not have any plans to move the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”
Greg Barton, professor in global Islamic studies at Deakin University, made this case for retaining the status quo:
“The future of Israel for Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis and for people living on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank depends upon trust and negotiation…If we went ahead and moved our embassy, following suit after the Americans to Jerusalem, we would be closing off doors of opportunity to play that mediating role.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s, not surprisingly, took an even harder line, and warned that changing the US embassy would unleash a “crisis we will not be able to come out from” for “the peace process in the Middle East and even peace in the world”. Departing Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to be reading from the same script, characterising the planned embassy change as dangerous: “You’d have an explosion, an explosion in the region, not just in the West Bank, and perhaps in Israel itself, but throughout the region.”
But so many explosions are already taking place in the Middle East and none have anything to do with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Syria’s civil war alone has resulted resulting in as many as 470,000 deaths. Perhaps this outgoing secretary of state might have found better things to do than trying to foist on Mahmoud Abbas a Palestinian mini-state (the West Bank and East Jerusalem) instead of his real goal, a fully-fledged Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
The Palestinian Authority has played John Kerry for a fool. The latest version of Mahmoud Abbas’ polemic naturally enough features UN Resolution 2334 and its call for East Jerusalem – including the Jewish Quarter in the Old City – to be the capital of an independent Palestinian state. According to Abbas, at any rate, it would now be “hypocritical” of the US government to move its embassy before all Israeli-Palestinian territorial disputes, not least any final agreement on Jerusalem, are resolved. John Kerry – again – is on the same page as Mahmoud Abbas: “If all of a sudden Jerusalem is declared to be the location of our embassy, that has issues of sovereignty, issues of law that would deem to be affected by that move…”
Superficially this makes some sense. In the 1947 UN partition plan for Mandatory Palestine, Jerusalem was assigned a special status – “the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem” – to distinguish it from both an independent Jewish state and an Arab counterpart. However, the prospect of it becoming a reality vanished amidst the battles and bloodshed of the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948. At the conclusion of hostilities, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan controlled the Old City (including the Jewish Quarter) and all points east, while Israel remained in possession of the newish suburbs and districts west of the Old City.
The change of status East Jerusalem experienced after King Hussein’s army invaded West Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War should have no direct bearing on the argument. Jordan losing jurisdiction over the Old City remains immaterial to the embassy debate because Old Jerusalem is tiny and ancient and will never be the seat of any government, Israeli or Palestinian. If there is to be a mini-Palestinian state in the future, its capital will be in eastern Jerusalem, a completely separate matter from western Jerusalem.
What is John Kerry’s problem then? One possible explanation might be that the secretary of state believes the Old City, situated between modern-day western Jerusalem and modern-day eastern Jerusalem, would be better safeguarded for humanity if it were to be ruled by a “Special International Regime” as envisaged by the 1947 UN resolution. Kerry’s vision, encoded in UN Resolution 2334, is to strip Israeli authority over a united Jerusalem and clear the way for West Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel and East Jerusalem the capital of a mini-Palestinian state. This, as it happens, also keeps open the fantasy of an international body one day holding dominion over the Old City with its “holy sites that are sacred to billions of people”.
Mahmoud Abbas no doubt likes the idea of reducing Israel’s control over Jerusalem. But neither he nor his successors would ever consent to a John Kerry-type scheme that detached the Old City from Arab-Palestinian rule. President Abbas’ fervently held view is that only a Palestinian-governed Old City can guarantee freedom of worship for all monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism: “It is the right of all religions to perform their religious rituals with total comfort in Jerusalem, our eternal capital.”
Would that it were true. The last time Arabs, in the form of Jordanians, ruled eastern Jerusalem and the Old City – 1949-67 – all but one of the Jewish Quarter’s 35 synagogues was demolished. The centenarian Bernard Lewis, in Notes on a Century, reminds us that Christian Israelis were only permitted to visit the Old City, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, once a year on Christmas Day (but not the Orthodox Christmas) – so much for performing non-Islamic religious rituals with “total comfort”. Even more despicable, the “inhabitants of the ancient Jewish Quarter were evicted and even dead Jews were removed from their graves in the ancient cemeteries.”
Mahmoud Abbas’s promise of peace and mutual respect is entirely bogus. We know through agencies such as Itamar Marcus’ Palestinian Media Watch that the leadership of the Palestinian Authority promotes violence, martyrdom and an anti-Israeli psychosis among the young. The lunacy of Islamic revivalism has reached a point where PA activists are now claiming the Western Wall, the most sacred site for the Jewish population in the Old City, is actually a part of al-Aqsa Mosque.
Tel Aviv was only ever meant to be an interim capital. In 1949, after defeating five Arab armies, the State of Israel established its centre of governance in the neighbourhoods and districts of West Jerusalem. No future Israeli-Palestinian agreement will change that. For the United States – and Australia, Foreign Minister Bishop – to move its embassy to a locale in western Jerusalem would do no more than catch up with the reality of 1949. And, yes, it might also demonstrate “unswerving support for Israel, as the Middle East’s only liberal, pluralist democracy.”
Daryl McCann has a blog at darylmccann.blogspot.com.au He tweets at @dosakamccann