Jerusalem: Brown and Sarkozy Get it Right, Obama Gets in a Muddle

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By Hugo Foster

Speaking before the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, British PM Gordon Brown yesterday rounded off his latest Middle East tour with a warning to the Iranian leadership; suspend uranium enrichment or face increasing isolation.

Nothing new there. Yet Brown also did something less familiar, which was to criticise (even if only slightly) the practice of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, a policy which is ultimately contrary to Israel’s own interests in securing lasting peace with the Palestinians. The failure of world leaders to appropriately condemn the various manifestations of Israel’s occupation of the territory has been shameful, making this a welcome, if long overdue step on the PM’s part. Last month, visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy hit the nail on the head when he told Israelis that ‘the best and only guarantee for the State of Israel is an independent, democratic Palestinian state at its side.’

Many Palestinians fear that the building and expansion of settlements, outposts, military zones, walls and checkpoints in the West Bank by settlers and soldiers alike amount to a flagrant attempt to establish ‘facts on the ground’ - an irreversible presence that will skew the outcome of any peace deal if and when this materialises. It is essential then that international visitors to Israel routinely acknowledge the basic dynamics of the occupation, before this presence is legitimised by time.

In this regard, Brown’s plea to Israel to allow for Jerusalem to be the nominal capital of both Israel and a future Palestinian state under a potential peace deal was significant. Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, and continues to in 2008. There are no two ways around this, and the illegality of this is acknowledged by a raft of UN resolutions and international conventions. Brown’s declaration was important in reminding the world that what began as an illegal occupation remains (at least in the eyes of the UK government) exactly that four decades later. More importantly, it suggests that the situation is reversible, that the final status of the city is still up for negotiation (this is not to say that there are not many other extremely thorny issues that peace talks entail and which Brown neglected to address, such as the right of return of Palestinian refugees).

Unfortunately, Barack Obama’s failure to be so explicit on the issue has cost him dearly. In June, Obama told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that ‘Jerusalem should never be divided’, going well beyond the position of many US neo-cons and indeed Israelis on the subject. Though Obama later backtracked on it, the statement dented the hopes of many people worldwide who had thought that future US policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict might be less one-sided, unfair and ultimately unhelpful to both sides. This is to not even mention the outrage that it caused in the Arab world, and Obama's instant loss of credibility there.

Obama’s arrival in Israel and the West Bank today, at the end of his own regional tour, has been hotly anticipated. It is essential that he seizes the opportunity to clarify his position on issues such as Jerusalem and settlements, and make it explicit that US guarantees for Israel's security require something in return. Otherwise, it may become even more apparent that the major impediment to Arab-Israeli peace is not the Israelis and Palestinians themselves (those who are actually affected by the conflict), but people living thousands of miles away.