Jockeying for Jerusalem
By Ramadan A. Kader
"When the president (Donald Trump) made this comment [recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital] on Wednesday, everybody said the sky was going to fall. So Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, the sky's still up there. It hasn't fallen."
So said Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, days after President Donald Trump announced in December his outrageous decision of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Haley’s sardonic remark rings true.
More than five months after Trump’s move, the US embassy has moved its embassy to the holy city amid a deadly crackdown by Israel on Palestinian protesters.
In 1995, the Congress approved recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital. All predecessors of Trump did not enforce the legislature for fear of the backlash. So what did make Trump depart from the line?
Well, the Trump administration had obviously calculated the Arab reaction to the embassy move and concluded that it would not go beyond a chorus of toothless condemnations. Domestic problems in Arab countries keep them too busy to pay enough attention to the serious implications of the US step.
The lame Arab reaction exposes not only unprecedented fragmentation but also a radical change in strategic priorities.
Since taking office in January last year, Trump has not hidden his favourite approach as a political dealer. The former real-estate billionaire has a passion for cutting deals, which are not necessarily fair for others. His main tool is arrogance of power.
On more than one occasion, he has displayed disdain even for his Arab allies, coveting their wealth and demanding them to pay for the US friendship. Gone are the days when the US exercised its pressure on Arab governments behind closed doors.
Trump and his aides have repeatedly portrayed the move on Jerusalem as realpolitik, arguing that the holy city is already under Israel’s control although the world has never recognised the Israeli annexation of the eastern part of the city.
Jerusalem is home to Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future statehood.
The Arab feedback on the arbitrary transformation of Jerusalem’s status has mostly boiled down to lip service to the Palestinians.
Last week, Arab foreign ministers convened an emergency meeting on the killing of dozens of Palestinians by Israeli fire. They roundly denounced the Israeli brutality and the US infringement of the international law and ethics.
The meeting was long in rhetoric and short in substance. It ended with the announcement that the Arabs will push for an independent international probe into the Gaza killings. Even if their demands were made, would Israel and the US give a damn about the finger-pointing?
Significantly, just after the UN Human Rights Council voted on Friday for sending an independent commission to investigate the Israeli abuses, Tel Aviv showed contempt for the move. Israeli Foreign Ministry accused the council of bias and attacking what it called the "only democracy" in the Middle East.
Judging by previous such steps, the latest measure, though morally laudable, will lead to nowhere and do little, if any, to ease the Palestinians’ long-standing plight.
To be frank, a portion of the Arabs' predicament is at their doors. In recent years, several Arab countries have waded into disastrous conflicts amid a fierce competition by non-Arab regional powers for domination.
This competition has taken its brunt on inter-Arab cohesion, resources and even survivability. Some Arab countries face the prospect of disappearance due to raging feuds ironically fuelled by some “Arab brethren” supporting armed militias there.
The US has, meanwhile, succeeded in coaxing several Arab governments into believing that Iran poses the greatest threat to their countries' security. Thus, after decades of viewing Israel as the sworn foe, Iran is now cast as the Arabs' new enemy. No one can be happier than Israel and the US for this change of heart.
With these self-inflicted feebleness and distraction, Jerusalem is pushed onto the back burner.