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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Why Trump's decision on Jerusalem changes very little at all

There isn't a single Trump policy that suggests he is interested in ending the occupation, writes HA Hellyer. This announcement is depressingly consistent with that reality

Jerusalem's old city pictured earlier this week. Oded Balilty / AP
Jerusalem's old city pictured earlier this week. Oded Balilty / AP

As the news came through, via an embargoed but leaked press briefing, confirming that the Trump administration would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is that it really does matter. And the second is that it doesn’t matter for the reasons many populists in the region insist it does.

From the outset, let us get the framing of this issue correct. In the age of fake news, it’s important to insist on facts. Jerusalem is occupied territory, that’s simply international law. Advocates of the Israeli position that it is "the undivided eternal capital of Israel" are precisely that – backers of the Israeli position, which is the position of the occupying power. And that’s all it is, legally speaking. It doesn’t make it right and scores of United Nations resolutions exist to that effect.

On a political level, a vast international consensus exists that the eventual permanent status of Jerusalem is subject to negotiation between the representatives of the Palestinian people and those who occupy them. In that negotiation process, the US, time and again, has shown itself to be far more biased towards the Israeli side of this conflict – a conflict that has never been equal. Again, the framing ought to be repeated, irrespective of how Washington DC chooses to see the region: there is an occupying power, and an occupied people. Those are facts.

Therein lies another problem in Mr Trump’s declaration. Recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital makes the US president and his administration wholly unable to act as a "neutral mediator". Certainly, previous American presidents have hinted at recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but this is the first time anyone has gone this far. And that obliterates the idea that the Trump administration can be viewed as a neutral arbiter.

But should anyone be truly surprised? Alas, no. There isn’t a single policy that can be pointed to by this administration that might be offered as evidence to support the idea that the US president has supported the ending of the occupation. And thus, in that regard, as bitter as it sounds, the decision doesn’t really change all that much, except perhaps to make it clear that it is nothing short of preposterous to claim that a Trump White House can be a just mediator.

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Here is another frame to keep in mind: the question of whether or not the people of Palestine ought to be looking towards DC in that fashion in any event. It is far too common in the Arab world today to look at the revolutionary uprisings in 2011 in a negative light, due to the upheaval and the unexpected progressions they took. But at their root was a desire for different populations of the region to have a stronger role in their own collective destinies – and all the consequences that go along with that.

Look at the alternative to that: an absence of power behind the agency of the people of this region to act. One of the strongest positions of the pro-Israel policy establishment to go through with recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, is to point to the various congressional resolutions in favour of it. Except, and this needs to be declared quite forcefully, so what? Why should the resolutions of a Congress in a country thousands of miles away have any bearing on a deeply indigenous issue to this part of the world? Should there not, at the very least, be a modicum of humility in Washington DC, and indeed its elected representatives, to consider that actually, they have no right to dictate that an occupied territory in the Arab world is the occupying power’s capital?

As the world’s superpower, the US does have a certain standing, but that is the same in Europe, for example, where American stock is high. Yet, Europe does not accord DC the same kind of standing as DC has in this region. That is a choice and it is a choice that stems from empowering the agency of citizens, or lack thereof. If the former were true, the Trump administration would be thinking twice before embarking on such an obvious affront to the region. In this case, it doesn’t need to.

And there is more at stake here than just symbolism. Because inevitably, there will be a response and we can almost guarantee that protests against this move will be put down in the most violent terms and, tragically, that people will die.

That is the inevitable reality. As long as accountability is absent, as long as the agency of the people of the region is not taken seriously, the dignity of the people of the region is not assured. That’s not simply a question about Jerusalem – but how fitting it is that the City of Peace serves as a reminder to the people of this region that true peace is the presence of justice.

Dr H A Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London

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