YOSSI MEKELBERG October 09, 2021
After a short honeymoon period with complimentary media headlines and high approval ratings, US President Joe Biden’s popularity has taken something of a dive. The nature of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, surging COVID-19 infection rates and a migration crisis at the southern US border are taking their toll. It all spells bad news for an administration in its first year, and a year away from the crucial mid-term elections.
However, while the imminent reopening of the American consulate in East Jerusalem, which used to serve Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, may not dramatically improve Biden’s standing in the opinion polls, it will be an important step toward repairing Palestinian confidence in Washington’s intentions, which was badly damaged under the previous administration.
During his presidential election campaign Biden was clear that, if elected, he would keep America’s Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem, despite his deep reservations about its move there from Tel Aviv in the first place. In the same breath he promised that rather than reverse the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he would reopen a US consulate in East Jerusalem as part of engaging Palestinian leaders in talks about a reaching a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a two-state model. Despite recognising that Donald Trump’s relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem was a popular move among the American electorate, Biden was bold enough to call it “short-sighted and frivolous.” His view, in line with the official US view since 1967, was a pragmatic one that didn’t object in principle to recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as it functions as such for all practical purposes anyway, but held that it should have been done, as he put it, “in the context of a larger deal to help us achieve important concessions for peace in the process.”
The Trump administration left a trail of destruction that damaged the prospects of peace between Israel and the Palestinians and stoked Palestinians’ resentment of US bias against them. The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel alone was a painful blow to their hopes for self-determination, to their legitimate claim on parts of the city as their capital, and to their dignity. To make things worse, in 2018 the US merged its embassy in Jerusalem with the consulate there, though the latter was essentially operating as the embassy to Palestine; and by renaming the former consulate in East Jerusalem as the Palestinian Affairs Unit, which has no legal diplomatic status, Washington downgraded its relations with the Palestinians, sending a clear message about which side the US was on. No one seriously expects Biden to rescind the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Politically it is too costly, and probably unnecessary. But now, nearly a year into his term, it is time for him to fulfil his promise to re-open the consulate in East Jerusalem, a promise repeated to President Mahmoud Abbas by Secretary of State Antony Blinken at their meeting in May. It is important for both symbolic and practical reasons.
What is really needed is for Washington to take its relations with the Palestinians one step further and recognise an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem, and follow this with opening an American embassy in East Jerusalem to this newly recognised state, regardless of peace negotiations or the lack thereof.
It is especially crucial because there is no expectation that Washington will come up with a peace initiative any time soon, nor in all likelihood under this administration, especially in its first term. However, there is a huge difference between putting a hold on proactively engaging with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and burying any chance of an agreed peace agreement that meets the minimum requirements of both sides. And one of those indisputable and non-negotiable terms for both sides is that Jerusalem be the capital city of the independent states of Israel and Palestine. There is no single Palestinian leader, and I can’t foresee one, who would accept any peace agreement that did not include East Jerusalem, or at least parts of it, as the capital of Palestine. Back in the 2000 Camp David peace negotiations, President Yasser Arafat feared that the strength of opposition to any compromise on issues as sensitive as Jerusalem, or refugees, would lead to him having to suppress resistance that could escalate into a Palestinian civil war. Moreover, neither in the MENA region nor in the rest of the Muslim world is it likely that any peace initiative, let alone agreement, that handed the entire sovereignty of Jerusalem to Israel would receive even the slightest degree of support.
In the meantime, Israel is exploiting its superior political, military, legal, economic and diplomatic power to ensure that it is in complete control of both West and East Jerusalem, while making the lives of many Palestinians in the city extremely unpleasant. Despite Israel’s illegal annexation of occupied East Jerusalem, the city’s Arab residents have not been granted the same citizenship rights as the Jews there, the Arab residents of the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighbourhoods are facing eviction, and illegal Jewish settlements are encircling the eastern side of the city, while the security barrier includes these settlements and excludes some Palestinian neighborhoods. This is all part of the bigger Israeli ploy to ensure a Jewish majority in the city and marginalise the Palestinian presence there.
For this very purpose of undermining any Palestinian rights to any part of Jerusalem, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett expressed his opposition to the reopening of America’s consulate in East Jerusalem when he met Biden in the White House in September; and his foreign minister Yair Lapid, ostensibly the more dovish of the two on relations with the Palestinians, called it a “bad idea” that would send the wrong message to the Palestinians and other countries.
On the contrary, reopening the US consulate must be seen as a significant move in the right direction — even though it is merely the restoration of the situation that existed until 2018. What is really needed is for Washington to take its relations with the Palestinians one step further and recognise an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem, and follow this with opening an American embassy in East Jerusalem to this newly recognised state, regardless of peace negotiations or the lack thereof. This would send a clear signal that Washington truly believed in a two-state solution. However, what are the chances of this happening any time soon? That is a completely different question.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelbergDisclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view