Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018
  
 

US has broken taboo on Jerusalem – Australia should lend support

Gazan civil society originally conceived of these protests, which have been running now for several weeks, as a peaceful demonstration against their dire humanitarian situation (for which Hamas bears most responsibility). Hamas, seeing the danger in this for its own rule, appropriated and redirected these protests against Israel. The “March of Return” was a re-assertion of Palestinian claims to the land of Israel, intended to culminate on the 70th anniversary of the date of Israel’s creation, an episode Palestinians refer to as the Nakba (or tragedy).

Hamas compelled civilians to attend these protests and then went about injecting them with violence and provoking conflict with Israeli security forces (by Hamas’s own accounts, over 50 of those killed were Hamas operatives). Why? Because such clashes, with the widespread international media coverage and inevitable condemnation of Israel they generate, strengthen Hamas’ political hand. Cynical in its disregard for human life, it is an asymmetric propaganda tool which Hamas uses to great effect.

While it was accompanied with turmoil (and should be have been better timed to avoid this sensitive period in the Palestinian calendar), the opening of the new US Embassy need not undermine the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, it may do the reverse.

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The new US diplomatic presence will be based in West Jerusalem, an area where Israel’s claim to sovereignty is not in doubt. Israel has controlled this territory since its founding in 1948. It is home to all of Israel’s major institutions of state. The international community has treated it as Israel’s capital for decades. Visiting foreign leaders base themselves there and meet Israeli counterparts without reservation. Under any conceivable peace plan, this part of Jerusalem remains under Israeli sovereignty.

As US officials have been at pains to point out, the move does not preclude the capital of a future Palestinian state being located in East Jerusalem, nor does it amount to recognition of Israeli claims of sovereignty over the entirety Jerusalem. These issues remain subject to future negotiation.

Though deeply symbolic, the move is simply a recognition of reality, both geographic and political, and the correction of an historical anomaly. The status of Jerusalem had become inextricably frozen in time by the UN Partition Plan of 1947 (which designated Jerusalem a special international zone) – a plan which was never implemented and was quickly overtaken by events.

Palestinian medics and protesters evacuate a wounded youth from the clashes in Gaza.

Palestinian medics and protesters evacuate a wounded youth from the clashes in Gaza.

Photo: AP

The embassy move unlocks this freeze, and may help address other aspects of the conflict that are similarly stuck in the frozen wastes of 1948 (such as the displaced Palestinian population, still housed in regional refugee camps several generations hence, rather than re-settled).

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, diplomats prize stability and venerate the status quo. But the preservation of this status quo – a mythical construct dating from 1948 – has done little to advance the interests of either side. The Palestinians are still without a state. And Israel still lacks the broad recognition and legitimacy which would provide it genuine security.

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The US embassy move has injected a welcome dose of reality to the conflict. It sends a signal to those rejectionists who have frustrated numerous peace efforts over the years that they can no longer exercise a veto over those who are prepared to contemplate co-existence.

Now the United States has broken the taboo, as a pragmatic and solution-oriented nation Australia should be prepared to lend our support to this common-sense proposition. We should consider recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, without prejudice to its final boundaries and while acknowledging East Jerusalem as the expected capital of a future Palestinian state.

A final-status peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is not within reach right now. Mistrust between the peoples runs too deep, and needs to be rebuilt. Calling for an immediate resumption of negotiations in such an environment is an empty slogan.

But that does not mean there is no scope for progress towards peace. Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions – as manifested in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen – are re-ordering the old fault lines in the Middle East. Alarmed by Iran, interests between Israel and the Arab world are converging, and cooperation is growing. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince recently acknowledged Israel’s right to exist – a profound statement from the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

A new-found spirit of pragmatism shows signs of overcoming the failed absolutism that has bedevilled the region’s politics for so many years. Having up-ended the table with its Jerusalem move, an opening exists for the United States to push on and address other seemingly intractable elements of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Dave Sharma was Australia’s Ambassador to Israel from 2013 to 2017.

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