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Jerusalem: The Art of the Pushover

07 Dec 2017
By Dr Ross Burns

There are perhaps no negotiations more fraught, or with higher stakes, than those surrounding Israel-Palestine. Has the self-professed “world’s greatest deal-maker” dropped the ball after making his first major play in the region?

Whatever happened to the ‘art of the deal’? What negotiating handbook prescribes that you force your partner to give up their ace card before a game has started?

US President Donald Trump has reinterpreted the game he claims to be master of in his statement on 6 December recognising Jerusalem as the capital of a single state, Israel, and hailing this as the first move in the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv. He then argues that this cynical exercise in setting up facts on the ground in no way pre-empts final status negotiations on the future of the city.

There is a breathtaking lack of logic to this claim but it is also entirely consistent with Trump’s other recent moves to remove the United States from the framework of international deal-making enshrined in the post-World War II international order. He has already:

  • announced the renunciation of free trade deals (already signed but which he now finds inconvenient);
  • walked away from the climate change negotiating framework;
  • left one of the chief UN agencies, UNESCO;
  • all but abandoned a deal with Iran which enforced a stay on that country’s nuclear program; and
  • chosen his side in the split he identifies as dividing the Islamic world between Shi`a and Sunni.

The Jerusalem move is another example of Trump’s program of policy by provocation and disruption. Israel is given a big win without making the slightest concession to the Palestinians; the latter get a poke in the eye and are told not to flinch. Instead, they receive a clear signal that the only game they might be allowed to join is one in which their ‘state’ will resemble a mild outbreak of measles on a post-1967 map of Palestine, with possibly limited access to Jerusalem and a capital at Ramallah. The transformation of Palestine into a Bantustan that even apartheid South Africa would not have dared contemplate would then be complete.

Trump’s move is dressed up as a gesture in favour of peace and as ending a policy of ignoring Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital. Trump did not explain what was referred to under the description “Jerusalem”: presumably not only the eastern and western halves of the city but possibly any peripheral areas that Israel might choose to add to the city footprint (as has been done in the case of major settlements on the outskirts)?

Nowhere did the president’s statement explain how peace can be advanced by breaking with the tradition that has prevailed since 1947. In 1947 Australia, along with virtually all other members of the UN General Assembly, endorsed a resolution (#181) inter alia endorsing Jerusalem’s status as a corpus separatum under a special international regime and ensuring the rights of all religious communities in the city. Australia’s co-sponsorship of the resolution was a move that for many years influenced its policy of not pre-empting any deal which would rule out a negotiated outcome.

Fortunately, Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop has clearly stated that Australia does not endorse Trump’s logic and has no intention of moving its embassy from Tel Aviv. Ms Bishop and Attorney-General George Brandis had ventured in the past to speculate that the definition of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied territory’ under international law is a matter for final status ruling, not a description of the present reality. In doing so, Australia pursued an interpretation that no other western country has stumbled upon and which also goes some way to weaken the Palestinians’ bargaining position. Hopefully Trump’s exercise in over-reach has prompted Bishop’s statement today and would counsel second thoughts about redefining the status of East Jerusalem.

As ambassador in Tel Aviv from 2001 to 2003, I found no functional difficulties in operating from an office in Tel Aviv. The transport links between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are excellent. Contacting government is only a small proportion of most embassies’ work. In a small decentralised country like Israel, meetings with the business, research and educational sectors ranged across much of the country and one could be at the outskirts of Jerusalem faster than most other destinations. Given the criss-crossing pattern of movements and the availability of the Knesset as a meeting place in West Jerusalem, finding an agreed venue never impeded the embassy’s work. The US also has had the additional advantage of a sizeable consulate-general in West Jerusalem since 1948.

It is simply counter-intuitive for the United States to move its embassy’s base. The US has the advantage of a well-protected building in a fortress-like enclosure on the Tel Aviv seafront. Building a new protected enclosure (in West or possibly East Jerusalem?) will be formidably difficult if American protective standards are to be met, a process likely to delay the opening for many years. In the meantime, the US will have to wear the consequences of again separating itself from the consensus positions adopted by most other democracies on major international issues. The backlash from the Arab and Islamic world will be one difficulty it will have to handle but this latest signal that the United States is going it alone and putting ever greater distance between itself and its friends is perhaps even more worrying.

Ross Burns retired from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2003 after a career spent in numerous Middle East and other assignments including Tel Aviv and South Africa. He was Australia’s ambassador to Israel between 2001 and 2003.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.