Time for a unified front on Jerusalem
In May 2018, Guatemala and Paraguay moved their embassies in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following the relocation of the US Embassy earlier that month. The international backlash against all three countries was largely limited to verbal condemnation — more lamentably, the same was true of the Arab and Muslim worlds.
For all the furor over the embassy moves, none of the three countries faced any significant consequences (Paraguay’s U-turn three months later was due to a change in president, not because of outside pressure or sanctions).
Little wonder, then, that Australia is now mulling moving its embassy to Jerusalem. This week, 16 Muslim-majority countries — including Indonesia and Malaysia, which are among Australia’s top trading partners — warned Canberra against doing so, but without specifying any countermeasures. Days later, Indonesia reiterated that it would “adjust” its policies toward Australia if it moved its embassy, but again without elaborating.
So far, this sounds much the same as with the US, Guatemala and Paraguay: Just words, and judging from the past, empty ones. Australia’s spy agency has warned that relocating the embassy may “provoke protest, unrest and possibly some violence in Gaza and the West Bank.” But that is halfway round the world from Australia.
Canberra may have been emboldened by the lack of consequences faced by the US, Guatemala and Paraguay. Lack of tangible action, at least from Arab and Muslim countries — which are arguably more invested in Jerusalem’s status than the wider international community — risks enabling a domino effect, one that may not be limited to Israel’s traditional allies.
To prevent or minimize a domino effect of countries recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Arab and Muslim worlds need to come together to draw up a list of punitive measures to be taken if a country decides to move its embassy to the city.
Even a change of government — one that supports Israel — in a country not traditionally sympathetic to it could trigger an embassy relocation to Jerusalem, particularly if it is incentivized by the US and Israel. And once an embassy is relocated to Jerusalem, it cannot be taken for granted that a future government sympathetic to the Palestinians would reverse that decision.
That may well trigger tangible consequences from the US and Israel, as well as pressure from pro-Israel lobbies domestically, when relocating to Jerusalem did not elicit sanctions from countries that support the Palestinian cause. So a relocation may be regarded as a fait accompli, and Paraguay’s reversal may come to be something of an exception.
To prevent or minimize a domino effect of countries recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Arab and Muslim worlds need to come together to draw up a list of punitive measures to be taken if a country decides to move its embassy to the city. This is not an outlandish suggestion: Jerusalem’s status is an issue that unifies the Arab and Muslim worlds, and transcends the many divisions plaguing them.
Such a unified strategy would be best discussed and formulated via the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which comprises 57 member states, including all 22 members of the Arab League.
Obviously, it would be unrealistic to expect member states to impose identical sanctions. Their economic and political power varies hugely, and their ability and willingness to impose sanctions will depend on the influence of the offending country in question, and their specific relations with it. In some cases, strong punitive measures may affect a particular OIC member more than the country being targeted.
As such, sanctions could be split into tiers of severity that member states could choose from according to their specific circumstances. That way, there would be a unified front at least to some practical extent, and consequences to be faced beyond mere words of condemnation.
Drawing up a unified strategy, in and of itself, could serve as a deterrent to countries even considering whether to move their embassies to Jerusalem. Similarly, strength in numbers, and the different tiers of sanctions, could deter OIC member states from doing absolutely nothing tangible in response.
This year saw a dangerous precedent in countries recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving their embassies to the city. Unless the Arab and Muslim worlds act in unison and with purpose to forestall this, it may eventually become the new normal. If that happens in the face of collective inaction from Arab and Muslim states, they should share the blame.
• Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs.