The Palestinian leadership's unprepared response to President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has left it with a credibility problem. Not least, in the eyes of the Palestinian people themselves.
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What did President Mahmoud Abbas do, after one of the most-flagged U.S. foreign policy decisions in recent years? He panicked, and ran into the arms of President Erdogan, reframed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in religious terms and concentrated his energies on international fora already friendly to the Palestinian cause – but have precious little real-world influence.
President Abbas risks doing himself and the Palestinian cause a disservice unless he focuses on establishing an independent Palestinian state. And the only way that is going to happen is by finding a way to work with America, and the Trump administration.
President Abbas is committed to a strategy of augmenting Palestine’s claim to statehood by appealing to international organisations like the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). That in itself is not necessarily a bad strategy, but their limitations were more evident than ever in this situation. Abbas needs them to go beyond passing resolutions condemning U.S. policy.
Abbas' first international stop was the OIC. The final communiqué appears to have been put to together in a hurry. Significantly, the communiqué disregards Jewish rights and improperly states Christian rights: Jesus Christ was not born in Jerusalem as the communiqué claims; rather Jerusalem was the place of his death, burial, and resurrection. Fortunately, the mistake was rectified in the document entitled "Istanbul Declaration on Freedom for Al Quds" which makes no mention of Jesus. But the original communiqué is still up on the website.
But linking arms with Erdogan and reframing the conflict by excluding Jewish history (and mistaking Christian tradition) was a mistake. So long as the Palestinian cause is viewed solely through a religious prism, it is never going to have the universal appeal it arguably had when it was seen as a pan-Arab struggle. By running to Istanbul, Abbas also upset important Gulf allies.
So far, Abbas' new friend in Ankara has done nothing for the Palestinians but spit fire. Erdogan has not broken off diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv despite threatening to do so. On the contrary, business between Israel and Turkey is booming.
But there are also wider questions of Palestinian preparedness, accuracy and strategy.
Trump’s statement was hardly surprising. He had been talking about moving the embassy to Jerusalem for months. It was a campaign pledge. It was on the U.S. statute book. Abbas should not have been surprised. He should have known it was coming and should have had contingency plans in place. He appears to have had none.
Abbas also appears to have misunderstood what Trump said: "We are not taking a position of any final status issues," Trump declared, "including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders." Trump said these questions were "up to the parties involved." He also called on "all parties to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, including the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif."
Trump left the door open. He did not say that Jerusalem in its entirety is the capital of Israel. He did not give Israel a free pass. The U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem is not going to become an embassy to the State of Israel. Trump signed the waiver to the Jerusalem Embassy Act, delaying the move by six months – but Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, said, realistically, it would take years to move the embassy. Trump insisted that the U.S. remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement acceptable to both Israel and Palestine.
The next logical step would have been for the Palestinians to say that they would be prepared to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital - on condition Trump also recognizes Palestinian claims to have their capital in the holy city, while also calling for the resumption of talks.
But the Palestinian leadership hasn't put forward a clear line. Is Abbas more interested in challenging Trump's move, by calling for non-recognition of Israel's capital? Or does he see the stronger forward-looking position as being to call on the international community to recognize Jerusalem as the shared capital of two states – Israel and Palestine?
Abbas cannot simultaneously call for non-recognition and recognition. Only one of these options actually disrupts the status quo, and in Palestine's favor: The recognition of Palestine with its capital in East Jerusalem. And there is no utility to calling for recognition of the Palestinian state and capital without simultaneously supporting Israel's claim to Jerusalem as its capital as well.
That's why the OIC’s communiqué - which called on states to recognize Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital but also not to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – may have appeared to be a tactical success, but in fact it was a failure. That kind of action is hardly a constructive basis for talks. If the aim of the peace process is to establish two states at peace with each other, Jerusalem is going to have to be a shared capital of both states.
Now, most of the world accepts that the Palestinians have a right to a state of their own with a capital in East Jerusalem. But to achieve this state the Palestinian leadership are going to have to acknowledge that the Jewish people have a special interest in Jerusalem too.
The next stop for Abbas is the United Nations. But what can the venerable organization do, not least when the Security Council is divided? UN resolutions are not sacred texts that are immutable with the passage of time. Even when they are binding, they are seldom enforced. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem has already led to disagreement over its legality and whether it violated UN resolutions, for instance, between Jordan’s Prince Hassan bin Talal and Oded Eran, formerly Israel’s Ambassador to Jordan.
What should Abbas do now to articulate a diplomatic strategy that moves beyond the initial insult, as he took it, from Trump?
Abbas should call on states to recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state and West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – as Russia did earlier this year. This would also be consistent with the Arab Peace Initiative.
Alternatively, Abbas could call for Jerusalem to be a shared capital. The modalities for sharing the city could be worked out between Israel and the Palestinians directly.
Rather than running to the OIC, whose member states already recognize Palestine, or the purely symbolic UN, Abbas should focus on the European Union, many of whose member states have not taken that step. He should tell his European friends that non-recognition is not working: They must recognize Palestine now.
If the European Union cannot agree at the Council level then he should ask individual states to follow Sweden’s lead by according Palestine recognition. Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom all have Consulates General in Jerusalem, which could become embassies to a Palestinian state if only they were prepared to recognize it.
The Turkish Consulate General in Jerusalem website says that Turkey "appointed an Ambassador as the Head of Mission to Jerusalem in 2005". This would appear to indicate that Turkey already treats the Consulate General as having embassy status, making Erdogan’s call to open an embassy in East Jerusalem all the more bizarre. Abbas could even ask Trump what is to become of the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem.
Trump is clearly a maverick politician who thinks and acts outside the box. He is not going to reverse his Jerusalem decision no matter what the United Nations says or what the OIC’s extraordinary summit declared in Istanbul last week.
Abbas has to overcome his initial shock and reconcile himself with the fact that the United States is the only actor that can bring Israel to the table. Undoubtedly, Trump’s announcement has placed the Palestinian leadership in a difficult position. They have to have to think very carefully about what they do next.
But we've had enough years of declarations and attempts to exclude the other from the historical record. Now, perhaps there is an opportunity to do things differently.
Victor Kattan is Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore and an Associate Fellow at the Faculty of Law. Twitter: @VictorKattan