Every dark cloud has a silver lining. The torrent of complex problems that Donald Trump has unleashed by his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will plague United States policy and Middle East peace-making for many years. You cannot un-recognize a capital once you have recognized it. Whatever caveats he may offer, Trump has effectively accepted Israel’s annexation of vast swathes of the occupied West Bank into greater Jerusalem, and its declaration of this entire zone as its “eternal undivided capital.”
But in plunging the Middle East into what may be a prolonged crisis, and saddling future generations of American policy-makers with the burden of dealing with the mess he has made, Trump may have inadvertently cleared the air. He may have smashed a rotten status quo of US “peace processing” that has served only to entrench and legitimize Israel’s military occupation and colonization of Palestinian land for a quarter of a century, which has made more difficult a just, lasting peace between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples.
After Trump, how can the eternally dishonest broker, “Israel’s attorney,” in the words of veteran State Department official Aaron David Miller, even pretend to act as a mediator? Trump has, in effect, adopted wholesale the Israeli position that all of Jerusalem belongs exclusively to Israel, and that all of it—including areas extending far north, south and east of the city—is Israel’s capital, denying the Palestinians any national or political rights there. He has thereby nailed the United States flag to a position that antagonizes virtually every Palestinian, Arab and Muslim, and the overwhelming majority of peoples and governments around the world.
There can be—and there should be—no going back to the old formula in place for decades, whereby the United States colluded privately with Israel and the two powers thereafter imposed their will on the Palestinians. That was never the way to achieve a just and lasting peace; it served only to oblige the weaker party to bow to the will of the stronger, which in turn exacerbated and prolonged the conflict. If this changes, it is indeed a silver lining to what promises to be a debacle for US diplomacy and for the stability of the Middle East.
If, moreover, Trump’s action drives a stake through the heart of the truly dreadful made-in-Israel plan that presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner is peddling, that would be an entirely good thing. The Kushner plan has been reliably reported to involve a non-contiguous Palestinian “state” in a fraction of the West Bank and Gaza, without its capital in Jerusalem, without real sovereignty, without control over its own borders or its security, and without any right of return for Palestinian refugees. Calling this travesty a Bantustan would be an insult to apartheid South Africa. No Palestinian leader can accept anything like this and retain a shred of self-respect or the support of his or her own people.
Another silver lining is that those Arab monarchs and dictators that have been busy cozying up to Israel, in the hope of allying with it against their bogeyman, Iran, have now been forced to run for cover. There will now be the usual sonorous, meaningless, unanimity from the Arab states and the Arab League in support of the Palestinians, but this masks an important reality: in a part of the world that has more absolute monarchies and jackboot dictatorships than any other, the rulers have once again been obliged to pay attention to the views of the ruled. Oppressed though they may be by these awful regimes, most Arabs are deeply sympathetic to the Palestinians, and whether they are Muslims or Christians, they regard Jerusalem as a sacred trust, and part of their patrimony. No Arab ruler dares to stand against this tide of opinion.
So, in spite of himself, in delivering a blow to international law, to multiple United Nations decisions, and to 70 years of US policy, going back to the partition resolution of November 1947, Trump may have unwittingly shown us a path toward a better way to dealing with the question of Palestine than any that has been on offer for a long time.
It is time to get away from the idea that Israel’s most fervently partisan supporter and supplier of money and arms can be a mediator. The United States is not neutral: it is a party to this conflict, fully on the side of Israel. This, despite the fact that polls consistently show that a majority of Americans want the United States to be neutral and even-handed in its dealings with Israelis and Palestinians, and that nearly half of all Americans, and a majority of Democrats, would go so far as to support sanctions or stronger action against Israel over settlement construction.
Instead of US monopolization of negotiations, a truly impartial international go-between is needed. It is time to get away from the Oslo straitjacket, which was expressly designed by the Israeli government to confine and control the Palestinians, and to allow it to colonize and occupy Palestinian land to their heart’s content.
An entirely new basis for negotiations must be grounded in all UN resolutions, including UNGA 181, which entitled the Palestinians to a state much larger than just the West Bank and Gaza, or than the scraps the Kushner plan envisages for them; and UNGA 194, which promised Palestinian refugees who were expelled during Israel’s establishment return and compensation. Instead of the skewed bases on which all previous negotiations have taken place, there must be a return to bedrock principles of justice and equality for both peoples involved in this conflict.
Donald Trump certainly had no such aim, but perhaps this latest instance of his shooting himself in the foot may help lead the Palestinians and the Arabs out of the wilderness where they have wandered for too long. Perhaps his action will encourage Europeans and other international actors to overcome the resistance of the United States and to shoulder their global responsibilities and begin engaging forcefully with the Middle East. For Trump has shown us that peace in Palestine is far too serious a matter to be left to the antics of the sinister lot of Keystone Cops who are currently in charge in Washington.
Co-posted with The Nation.