by Ferry de Kerckhove
The Globe and Mail
December 12, 2017
In a way, there is some solace in Michael Bell, a former ambassador and the founder and heart of the Jerusalem Old City Initiative – JOCI – not living to hear Donald Trump's announcement on Jerusalem. It was a useless gesture to satisfy the President's base and fulfill a reckless campaign promise, premised on nothing but uprooting his predecessors' wise postponement of the U.S. Jerusalem Embassy Act that called for the move of the Tel Aviv-based U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, thus recognizing formally Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Fully cognizant of the fact that the status of Jerusalem may be the most sensitive element in the Middle East peace-process negotiations, Michael and his friends have dedicated years of painstaking work on developing creative options for the governance and management of the Old City, which could be used in preparation for a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Mr. Trump's announcement has certainly put a major dent in the project.
Indeed, that decision – with not even the slightest companion proposal to bring the two sides to resume real negotiations – will only have negative impacts, starting with the inevitable bloodshed from fruitless, yet understandable, Palestinian demonstrations against it. The gift to his base will have no impact on the President's abysmally low popularity, nor will it entice Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to change his stance on the negotiations, or lack thereof. He has pocketed the gift and will be emboldened to expand even further settlements in East Jerusalem. No one questions that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. That is not the argument. The link is with the ultimate solution to the peace process. Indeed, while many have underscored positively the fact that Mr. Trump did not refer to the undivided capital of Israel, his reference to leaving the final borders of Jerusalem for future negotiations, although prima facie reasonable, can only encourage Mr. Netanyahu to add facts on the ground through more settlements in the city. Settlers will be encouraged as well in the rest of the "rump" territory left for a potential Palestine as Mr. Trump's decision will only comfort the increasing majority of Israelis who oppose the two-state solution, irrespective of the longer term consequences.
Needless to add that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will come out further weakened, although some would argue that anything moving him closer to retirement may be beneficial for a reset – but that would also require a change in Israel's leadership. Hamas and Hezbollah will feast on the "rage" to rekindle their followers' faith in the deadly movements. And the Israeli government will answer violence with violence.
Ultimately, this more-than-symbolic decision of the U.S. President will make Israel less secure – which is bad for everyone in the region and beyond. It is tragic that since the sabotaged efforts by former U.S. state secretary John Kerry to deliver a path to peace, the peace process has dropped from the radar screens, powerfully aided by the Islamic State phenomenon, itself a horrifying byproduct of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. What is deeply upsetting in all this is that the Middle East needs Israel as a beacon of democracy and economic prowess. That is something that then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah fully understood when he proposed in 2002 full recognition of Israel by all Arab countries in exchange for full implementation of land for peace based on a return to pre-1967 war borders.
Others have rightly commented that the announcement would also play into the hands of Iran, Russia and Arab hardliners. It will very likely hurt the chances of Israel gaining its first non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in the forthcoming elections, a candidacy unfortunately delegitimized by the continued expansion of settlements in total disregard of zillions of UN resolutions. On the other hand, other than the expressions of displeasure by Arab leaders, not much will happen. The Arab League will denounce the decision but remains powerless to affect any peace process. But some Arab regimes close to the West also risk domestic turmoil for their continued co-operation with the U.S. and limited but real links and co-operation with Israel, such as Jordan and Egypt. Fundamentally, it is a deeply destabilizing move for no real apparent gain.
Unlike European leaders, our own government – which barely mentions the Middle East in speeches beyond our contribution to the fight against IS – has been pretty meek in reacting to the announcement, failing to denounce it, contenting itself to reiterate the well-trodden mantra that has underpinned our position for the last decades, irrespective of the evolution of the situation. Appeasing the elephant – as the Prime Minister's father referred to the U.S. – is not always the most effective response in non-bilateral realms. But rest in peace, Michael, we will continue to nurture JOCI, be it a Sisyphus rock.
Ferry de Kerckhove is a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt.