Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Even Arabs are now weary of Palestinian foot-stomping over Israel

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Colin Rubenstein

This article appeared in the Australian, 26 December 2017.

On December 6, Donald Trump "opened the gates of hell" and "set the Middle East aflame" by acknowledging Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, or at least that's what various prophets and practitioners of doom predicted.

The reality was somewhat different. While violent demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza, and in various Muslim and European countries, followed Palestinian Authority and Hamas calls for "days of rage", these were hardly of the magnitude expected. Indeed, Jerusalem itself was relatively quiet. The diplomatic storm from the Arab world also was less intense than predicted.

This unexpectedly mild reaction was due to the actual content of the statement itself and to the changing state of international affairs, particularly priorities in the Arab world.

The US President's announcement was measured and nuanced. While confirming the obvious - that Jerusalem, where Israel's parliament, Supreme Court, government ministries and the residences of its prime minister and president have all been since 1950, is Israel's capital - he made it clear that he wasn't pre-empting its final boundaries or precluding a Palestinian capital in the city's east, or a two-state outcome, and also that he respected the importance of the city to Christianity and Islam.

Riots in the West Bank and Gaza resulted in six demonstrators being killed, a guard being stabbed in a Jerusalem bus station and about 20 rockets being fired at Israel from Gaza, with Israel targeting Hamas facilities in response. However, it would have been much worse if Hamas and the Palestinian Authority had mobilised their own forces.

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is likely concerned that instability caused by widespread violence may ultimately lead to a Hamas takeover in the West Bank, something Israeli security has helped him prevent until now. For Palestinian residents of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, life is sufficiently comfortable to make risking current living conditions by staging another intifada undesirable. They are cynical about their president, now in the 12th year of his four-year term, and may well doubt his disproved claims that Jerusalem is under threat from Trump's symbolic move, which actually changes nothing on the ground.

Abbas's reaction has been disappointing. His initial statement deemed Trump's stance to be the end of negotiations, and whitewashed any Jewish connection to Jerusalem, describing it as an "Arab Christian and Arab Muslim city, the capital of the eternal state of Palestine".

At the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation summit on December 13, possibly miffed by the lack of support domestically and internationally, he descended into outright anti-Semitism, accusing Jews of being "really excellent in faking and counterfeiting history and religion". If Abbas can't even bring himself to accept the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and Israel, it casts real doubt over whether he will ever be prepared to negotiate peace.

Internationally, the harshest reactions came from Turkey and Iran - significantly non-Arab countries - which both seek hegemony over the Middle East. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees himself as a successor to the Ottoman emperors, and attacking Israel as a way to attract support from the Arab street.

Iran, which continually calls for Israel's destruction, uses even less subtle means, such as fomenting terror and rebellion, to spread its fundamentalist revolution.

While Erdogan convened the OIC summit to condemn Trump's announcement, notably the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates chose not to attend, with the Saudis sending only a junior minister. Attendance from Muslim countries in Africa and central Asia was similarly patchy. Significantly, the summit, while recognising east Jerusalem as Palestine's capital, also effectively implied the OIC accepts Israel's capital will be in the city's west.

The muted reaction of the Saudis and their allies demonstrates changing Middle East realities. Still concerned for the Palestinians, other issues such as the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, terrorism and domestic issues in their own countries have become higher priorities.

They, together with much of the Islamic world, may be tiring of Palestinian histrionics and ongoing rejectionism. The old insistence that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the core of the Middle East's problems, always dubious, is looking ridiculous in light of events in Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere.

Most important, the Arab world now regards expansionist Iran as a far greater worry than Israel, and for some time has been working covertly with Jerusalem as an effective ally to contain Iran's threatening activities.

The December 17 resolution at the UN Security Council expressing "deep regret" at "recent decisions" and calling void any actions that alter the status of Jerusalem was defeated by the US veto. The passage of a similar motion through the UN General Assembly on December 21 (on which Australia advisedly at least abstained) has no legal effect. In fact, demonstrating the farcical nature of the UN, it was this year's 21st motion on Israel, and while immoderate was actually less extreme than others, some of which have implicitly denied the Jewish connection to Jerusalem.

Trump rightly noted that many years of denying Israel's claim to Jerusalem have achieved nothing for peace. The Palestinian leaders rejected generous offers of statehood with east Jerusalem as their capital in 2000, 2001 and 2008. Since 2014, they have refused to negotiate at all. Now, instead of taking advantage of the favourable possibilities in Trump's announcement and pursuing dialogue, they have turned again to intransigence.

Experience amply demonstrates that the path to Middle East peace does not lie through appeasing Palestinian threats, colluding with or ignoring UN bias against Israel and refusing Israel the rights of any other country, such as choosing its own capital. The international community must stop denying reality just to cater to Palestinian sensibilities, and make clear the Palestinian Authority will achieve its state only if it is genuinely prepared to negotiate and compromise, and accept Israel's existence. Acknowledging Jerusalem's true status, like the US has, would be a good start.

Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.

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