By KP Fabian*
On 7 December, US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; ordered the US Department of State to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; and unleashed a diplomatic storm with the potential for disaster, not exactly unforeseeable. The US’ diplomatic isolation is almost complete.
Trump’s action was shocking, but not surprising. The decision fits in with his CEO style of functioning and was taken despite opposition from the US’ Department of State and Department of Defense. Trump knew well that there would be strong opposition, even condemnation, from the Muslim world and that Europe will not stand by him. However, Trump is not a somnambulist. He might have anticipated the storm and decided to face it and carry out his promise as candidate. But, it is too early to say when the embassy will be physically relocated to Jerusalem.
Trump’s most resolute defender so far, is US Permanent Representative to UN, Nikki Haley, and not US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Speaking at the emergency session of the UN Security Council where the US and Israel were ‘isolated’, Haley asserted that the decision was meant to advance the cause of peace; that the US has credibility with both the Israelis and the Palestinians; and that any peace agreement “would be signed on the White House lawns.” It is difficult to find any good reason to believe that any peace agreement would be delivered with Trump acting as the chief obstetrician and his son-in-law Jared Kushner as his assistant. Trump, with his decision, has aborted the pregnancy if there ever was one.
Saudi Arabia, the first country Trump visited as president, characterised his decision as “unjustified and irresponsible;” warned of the “dangerous consequences;” and asked him to reverse his decision. The Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon have called for an uprising. Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas saw it as “the greatest crime.” The Arab League declared that Trump’s decision was a “dangerous violation of international law” that had “no legal impact” and was “void.” The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) met in Istanbul and has called for the declaration of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.
Declarations and statements do not do much harm. But, protests, peaceful or violent, can have a larger impact than words. The US Embassy in Amman advised parents not to send children to school and embassies in the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region and elsewhere have issued security warnings to their nationals.
The US’ isolation is near total. The US had to veto Egypt’s draft resolution as the rest of the UN Security Council (UNSC) voted for it despite explicit threats from Haley. The threats did not work at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) either. The UNGA adopted a resolution by 128 to 9 with 35 abstentions and 21 absences a resolution expressing “deep regret” over recent decisions concerning the status of Jerusalem and stressing that the Holy City’s “final status issue is to be resolved through negotiations in line with relevant UN resolutions.” India rightly voted for the UNGA resolution, correctly ignoring Haley’s threats. The US might sulk for a while, but it cannot ‘punish’ 128 countries.
The key question is whether there will be large scale violence tantamount to a war. Israel might provoke a war for its own reasons, or its retaliation to rockets from Lebanon or Gaza might start a war. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has threatened that after winding down operations in Syria, it would take on Israel. In 2006, they sent a few rockets to Israel, which retaliated, causing the deaths of 1200 Lebanese and 120 Israeli soldiers.
Israeli intelligence has claimed that the Hezbollah has 150,000 rockets including some long-range ones made in Iran. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) has adopted a doctrine of periodically fighting the Hezbollah — ‘mowing the lawn when the grass has grown too tall’. Israel is seriously worried that Iran might get a land bridge to send weapons to the Hezbollah through Iraq and Syria. Therefore, one cannot rule out hostilities on the Israel/Lebanon front. Similarly, to force Trump’s hands to transfer the embassy, Netanyahu might start a war on the Hamas.
President Mahmoud Abbas has stated that the US no longer can be an impartial mediator. The assumption is that till Trump took this decision, US was one. This is a widespread but fallacious assumption. A mediator should be willing and able to mediate. Even if one assumes that the US is willing, the US is not able. The US is Israel’s protector, diplomatically and militarily. International Relations theory teaches that generally, the protector has much influence over the protected. As ably argued out by John J. Mearsheimer in his work, The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy, it is Israel that virtually controls US policy towards the rather volatile region. Israel does not want a Palestinian state. It will give nothing more than municipal autonomy. If the Palestinians begin an Intifada, or the Hezbollah or the Hamas begin sending rockets to Israel, the IDF will retaliate with disproportionate force and the rest of the world might do nothing to stop the carnage.
It is customary to blame the Arabs in general and the Palestinians specifically for their sad plight. But, that is a wrong conclusion. The Palestinians are more sinned against than sinning. President Trump has unwittingly made it easier for the Islamic State to find new recruits. It is painfully clear that one now lives in a world with decreasing respect and increasing contempt for international law.
* KP Fabian
Former Indian diplomat, & Professor, Indian Society of International Law