Solid consensus against Jerusalem embassy moves
With only weeks left until Americans cast their vote to decide, among other things, who will occupy the White House for the next four years, the Trump administration has decided that boosting Israel’s diplomatic standing in the world is a vote-winner. Admittedly, Donald Trump is doing that with considerable success. Following the watershed announcement of normalized relations between the UAE and Israel, there was another unexpected announcement from the White House: That Serbia and Kosovo had agreed to normalize economic ties with Israel, including Belgrade moving its embassy to Jerusalem and mutual recognition between Israel and Kosovo. Bahrain then became the latest Gulf country to normalize its relations with Israel.
For both Belgrade and Pristina, their agreements with Israel were a mere sideshow to a US-brokered economic normalization with each other, which was agreed this month. The Israeli deals were a concession to an eager Trump, who is rather overdoing his “I am Israel’s friendliest American president ever” act, as well as an attempt to conceal the fact that moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018 did not exactly open the floodgates for others to relocate from Tel Aviv.
It was back in March of 1999 that NATO forces, led by the US, conducted massive airstrikes against the Yugoslav military infrastructure — at that stage mainly in Serbia — eventually resulting in Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. Kosovo is recognized by only 98 UN member states, and Belgrade has only come to grudgingly accept its independent status as de facto. So the establishment of economic ties between Serbia and Kosovo, even if under Washington’s duress, is no mean achievement, as the ill feelings between the two countries — and the generally long-entrenched animosity between neighbors in the Western Balkans — are still running strong. However, it begs the question: Why entangle the crucial need to reduce tensions in the former Yugoslavia with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, worse, in the process deepen the sense of resentment and isolation among the Palestinians?
For Trump, pressuring other countries to move their embassies to Jerusalem is far from the simple matter of helping Israel realize its dream of universal recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. It also helps obscure the embarrassment his administration suffered when the US Embassy’s move from Tel Aviv emphasized its international isolation on this issue, as on many others during his presidency. In the two years since the relocation to Jerusalem, only Guatemala has followed suit. The other 150-plus countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Israel choose to remain closer to the Mediterranean Sea. As much as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hyped up the US Embassy move as one of the greatest achievements of his premiership, the reluctance of nearly all other nations to follow Trump’s example has highlighted the solid international consensus against it.
Most countries don’t want to move their missions to Jerusalem not because they oppose Israel per se, or even the idea of Jerusalem eventually becoming its internationally recognized capital. The reason is that they refuse to recognize any unilateral declaration of Jerusalem as the country’s capital without a just and fair solution of the conflict with the Palestinians, based on a two-state solution that recognizes the city as the capital of both Israel and an independent Palestinian state.
To recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel at this moment in time has both legal and political implications. Israel’s 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem is illegal according to international law, and to recognize the city as Israel’s capital while part of it is still under occupation amounts to recognition of the legality of the occupation. From a practical aspect, this would be yet another nail hammered into the coffin of the two-state solution, and would further alienate the Palestinians and destroy any dwindling support for peace among them.
Day by day, Palestinians are watching their chances of ever ending the Israeli occupation and fulfilling their aspirations of an independent state evaporate into thin air. Meanwhile, they witness an entrenched occupation, with hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers living on occupied land and enjoying a prosperity that most Palestinians can only dream of, while their civil and human rights continue to be brutally violated, week in, week out.
It might be that, currently, most Palestinians have more urgent issues to deal with than the future of Jerusalem, especially in these times of a deadly pandemic, but the city is still one of the most important symbols of the Palestinian national movement. One can hardly envisage how this never-ending conflict with Israel could be settled without parts of Jerusalem also being recognized as the capital of Palestine. Moving embassies to Jerusalem at this stage not only weakens those who support peace based on a two-state solution — an option that most people believe no longer exists — but also fuels anger and empowers those Palestinians who reject compromise with Israel. Not that there is the prospect of a government in Israel that would be even remotely interested in such a compromise.
In the two years since the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, only Guatemala has followed suit.
It takes no more than a quick glance at the press statement of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to become very skeptical of how much Serbian and Kosovan free will was involved in their agreements with Israel. Their actions have got both into hot water with the EU, whose position vis-a-vis Jerusalem is in stark contrast, and it comes as no surprise that officials in Brussels have warned both Belgrade and Pristina that there may be repercussions: In the case of Serbia regarding its application to join the EU, while in Kosovo’s case enjoying EU economic and political support. However, judging by the way spokespersons from both countries were evasive in replying to questions about the issue, one suspects that they might delay their contentious gestures for as long as possible; and, should Joe Biden become president, they might even discard them altogether.
Only a peace agreement with the Palestinians will convince states that have diplomatic missions in Israel to forsake the sandy beaches and cosmopolitan vibe of Tel Aviv in favor of Jerusalem, and to join those rather lonely and isolated US diplomats there. Until such a time, similar moves might amount to only a trickle, but a damaging one nevertheless.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg