Vagaries of Consciousness
- US has compromised its position as a neutral arbiter of the Arab-Israel dispute
It is remarkable to see how willingly President Donald Trump treads waters which his predecessors had swiftly shunned – of course, for wrong reasons. Last December, he announced shifting of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which is an occupied territory under international law. He made his promise good on 14 May 2018, a day chosen to mark the 70th anniversary of Israel’s announcement of its independence. While celebratory toasts were exchanged, 40 miles in the west, on a border crossing near Gaza, 60 Palestinian protestors were killed by Israeli Security Forces, a day that would go down as bloodiest in recent history of the turmoil. It would be instructive to briefly survey the events that have shaped one of the oldest and persistently simmering disputes in the Middle East
In 1922, at the conclusion of the 1st World War, and for reasons not entirely legitimate, Great Britain carved out Palestine from Arabia for its administration under a Mandate received from the League of Nations. Earlier in 1917, the British government had issued a declaration, known as the Balfour Declaration, that promised “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, on the understanding “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. During the period of administration, the ‘qualification’ to the ‘promise’ was disregarded, when large number of European Jews started arriving in Palestinian territories threatening to tip the balance of population against the Palestinian Arabs. The ensuing violence prompted Britain to take the matter to the newly established United Nations. Brought first in 1947, the Palestine dispute is the oldest item on the agenda that has remained elusive to any solution so far.
The Partition Plan 1947, approved by the General Assembly on 29 November 1947 in its Resolution 181 (II), comprised: (a) creation of Arab and Jewish States not later than 1 October 1948; (b) division of Palestine into eight parts: three were allotted to the Arab State and three to the Jewish State, with the town of Jaffa forming an Arab enclave within Jewish territory; and, (c) an international regime for Jerusalem, the eighth division, to be administered by the United Nations Trusteeship Council.
The Jewish Agency accepted the plan despite reservations on the status of European emigration and exclusion of certain territories within its limits. The Arab people rejected the partition on the fundamental “ground of it being in violation of UN Charter, which granted people the right to decide their own destiny. They said that the Arabs of Palestine would oppose any scheme that provided for the dissection, segregation or partition of their country, or which gave special and preferential rights and status to a minority.”
The Jewish Agency accepted the plan despite reservations on the status of European emigration and exclusion of certain territories within its limits
The big powers were arrayed against the hapless Arabs of Palestine, just as they dismembered Ottoman Empire and distributed its territories amongst themselves. Even what was offered to Palestinians under Resolution 181 (II) would not be available in the near future. Hostilities broke out soon thereafter. On 14th May 1948, Britain terminated its Mandate in Palestine. The Jewish Agency, on the same day, proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. Troops from neighbouring Arab states entered Palestine to help the Arabs. Fighting raged for several weeks and when it was halted, much of the territory allotted to the Arabs under the Partition Plan was occupied by Israel, including the western part of Jerusalem. Jordan controlled East Jerusalem and the West Bank of the Jordan river, while Egypt controlled the district of Gaza. The most disastrous event (called Naqba in Arabic) was exodus or forced expulsion in 1948 of 750,000 Palestinians, who were uprooted from their homes and lands and made refugees.
The subsequent wars of 1967 and 1973 resulted in even worse outcomes for Palestinians as all their territories were annexed by Israel, together with additional territories of Egypt (Sinai) and Syria (Golan Heights). The new UNSC Resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973), that called for immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict, came to occupy the field. Israel also declared that it would hold negotiations with contending parties directly rather than through UN mediation. Since then, it has made peace with Egypt at Camp David and withdrew its forces from Sinai (most of which it had re-captured in the 1973 war].
Later, and after the first Intifada, under the Oslo Channel (secret talks facilitated by the Norwegian government), Israel allowed Palestinians limited self-government in the West Bank and Gaza. Two suicide bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, in June and August 2001, that killed 56 Israelis, Israel rolled back many concessions and reintroduced its coercive tactics against Palestinians, which soon escalated to an all-out conflict. Another UNSC Resolution, 1397 (2002), demanding cessation of hostilities and reverting to negotiations for two-state solution. In an Arab League meeting in Beirut, Crown Prince (later King) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, offered recognition of Israel by all Arab states in exchange for its withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967. However, in the name of its security, and sporadic violence leading to Israeli deaths, Israel hasn’t acceded to this formula.
In 1980, Israel passed a basic law that declared East Jerusalem as part of Israel. In response, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 478 in August 1980 (with only America abstaining) which censured Israel, declared the basic law in violation of international law called upon all member states to accept this decision and, those having established diplomatic missions at Jerusalem, to withdraw such missions from the Holy City.
In 1995, the US enacted a law, titled Jerusalem Embassy Act, that obligated US administration to allocate funds for constructing and moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by 1999. But this didn’t happen because every six months, successive presidents from Clinton to Obama signed a waiver to keep the US embassy in Tel Aviv for national security reasons. President Trump has broken from this tradition by accepting Jerusalem as the ‘eternal capital’ of Israel.
On 18th December, the UNSC took up a Resolution moved by Egypt against the US decision, to declare that ‘such decisions had no legal standing and were null and void … that international law must be respected lest chaos prevail…. it must be opposed as being in violation of many Council resolutions as well as the UN Charter’. With the exception of the US, which predictably cast a veto, all the members of the Council voted in favour of adoption of the Resolution. In a defiant tone the US ambassador said: ‘Today, the Council had witnessed an insult that would not be forgotten, the United Nations was doing more harm than good for the cause of peace. For the cause of peace and in the best interest of both peoples firmly in mind, the United States had voted “no”.’
Curiously, the Trump administration is boasting that it has a great plan to bring peace to the region. So far, none of its elements have been unveiled. A New York Times report of 5 December 2017 claimed that President Abbas was invited to a secret meeting in Riyadh where he was asked to support a plan “that would be more tilted toward the Israelis than any ever embraced by the American government, one that presumably no Palestinian leader could ever accept.” Under the plan the Palestinians would get a state of their own but only noncontiguous parts of the West Bank and only limited sovereignty over their own territory. The vast majority of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which most of the world considers illegal, would remain. The Palestinians would not be given East Jerusalem as their capital and there would be no right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.”
Both the White House and Riyadh have denied any such plan. Riyadh maintains that it is committed to the King Abdullah Plan of 2002.
Experts believe that the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem has compromised the US position as a neutral arbiter of Arab-Israel dispute. The administration may have appeased a number of lobbies – American right, Evangelicals – but its own standing in international affairs may have taken a toll.
After seventy years of suffering, Palestinian people continue to present a pitiful spectacle as most of their former backers have either made a side deal with Israel or are unable to provide them support that is even remotely comparable to what the US has provided to Israel. All the same, peace in the Middle East would remain a distant hope.