All roads lead to Jerusalem

Coming at the end of the year, US President Donald Trump’s decision not to waive the 1992 Capital of Israel Act, and instead recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as well as order the shifting of the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, reflected not just his frustration with the apparent intractability of the Palestinian problem, but also a desire to do what no President had done before: challenge the conventional wisdom that such a step would lead to such protests in the Arab world, indeed in the wider Muslim world, that US prestige would be irrevocably damaged.

The initial response was almost universally one of condemnation, and showed that there was a considerable degree of support for the Palestinian cause throughout the world. However, the support expressed was not material, but moral. Israel has developed a thick skin over the years, being subject to condemnation from its creation in 1948. That creation coincided with a war with the surrounding Arab nations, which led to the splitting of Jerusalem into Israel-held West Jerusalem and Jordan-held East Jerusalem. However, the new state’s Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, declared that undivided Jerusalem would be the capital of Israel.

Quite deliberately, this harked back to Biblical times, when Jerusalem became the capital of the Kingdom of Israel under King David, whose first capital had been Hebron. When Israel split, under King Rehoboam, David’s grandson and the fourth king, Jerusalem continued as the capital of Judah. It was later conquered by the Assyrian empire, and then passed to the Roman empire, where it served as the capital of the Procurator. Thus it was here that Jesus Christ was tried, and where he was crucified.

When Islam swept across the region six centuries later, it occupied Jerusalem. It was at this time that the Masjid Al-Aqsa was first constructed. It was the third most sacred site in Islam, being the first qibla, or place towards which the Muslims turned their faces in prayer, until it was changed to Makkah. Thus when the Muslims took Jerusalem, the city became sacred to three faiths, and a site of contention.

Jerusalem became subject to Christian attention during the Crusades. The First Crusade took place in 1098, when the Kingdom of Jerusalem was established. However, Salahuddin Ayubi took it back after a century. Jerusalem then remained attached to Egypt, and it was as its province that it became part of the Ottoman Empire. It was centuries afterwards that it became the focus of attention for European powers, for whose citizens it was a pilgrimage destination. This interest led to Russia (representing the Russian Orthodox Church) and France (representing the Roman Catholic) going to war, in the Crimean War. While France got control of the Holy Places, the Ottoman province of Lebanon was also carved out of Syria, which had a Christian majority, if all sects were counted.

The stage was thus set for the third religion to stake its claim through a large number of settlers in Palestine from Europe. This was quite advanced by the time Hitler carried out the Holocaust, involving the slaughter of six million Jews. While Hitler did not inspire Jews to support Israel, he did turn a trickle into a torrent. When the Ottoman Empire, after its defeat in World War I, had been shared out among the winners in the shape of League of Nations mandates, Palestine had fallen to Britain’s share. Thus it had got the projected Jewish homeland. It gave its other mandates to Sharif Hussain’s family, which had kings installed in Iraq and Jordan, but just left Palestine, where a declaration of independence was made by Zionist settlers, of the state of Israel. Arab states attacked it, and Jordan took not just the West Bank, but also East Jerusalem.

It was after the Six-Day War of 1967 that Israel occupied East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank, and worsened the Palestinian problem. In 1948, those made refugees by the Israeli invasion had to go into refugee camps, where they still are, 70 years on. The UN Security Council had passed a resolution calling for Israel to withdraw from all occupied territories, which it did not do. It withdrew from the Sinai peninsula after peace with Israel in 1978, and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation accepted the right of Israel to exist in the 1990 Oslo Accords, when it exchanged recognition for a two-state solution, that ultimately, there would be two states, Israel and Palestine, on the same territory as the old mandate. One of the intractable issues was that of the capital of the two states. The Palestinians had long assumed it would be East Jerusalem, but Trump’s recognition of it meant that this would no longer be possible.

The OIC member states have also experienced a wave of anger, expressed in the form of street protests. The biggest and most violent protests have naturally come in the occupied territories, and the protesters have been showing a persistence that would not be caused by other reasons. The holding of a special OIC Summit may have been prompted more by the need of those governments to placate opinion at home rather than do anything substantial. The summit resolved to recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state, It should be noted that the host, Turkey, itself had diplomatic relations with Israel and was allied to the USA through its NATO membership.

Similarly, such major non-Arab Muslim states as Pakistan and Indonesia were linked to the USA, as were several leading Arab nations, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Though the summit was against the US recognition, the USA had many friends at the table. The OIC had kicked the problem to the UN Security Council, where the USA vetoed a resolution condemning the recognition, and the General Assembly has stepped in. Again, like with the OIC resolution, nothing will result from it. At this point, the demand is for the USA to withdraw its decision. If it does, it will allow the Trump Administration to claim to its Zionist support base that its heart is in the right place, and its Muslim allies to claim that they have achieved a great victory for Palestine, but will leave the plight of the Palestinian people unchanged. If it does not, it paves the way or further moves which will allow Arab and non-Arab opponents of Israel to accept a peace with it, even if that peace leaves the Palestinian people to one side.