22 May 2018 17:42 IST

The US made history in Israel

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump | Reuters

Naming Jerusalem Israel’s capital may open up opportunities for peace with Palestine

May 14, 2018 is one of the most important days for the sovereignty of nations. On the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, the US formally opened its embassy in Jerusalem, officially recognising it as the Jewish state’s capital city.

As one of the countries to principally back the UN General Assembly vote on November 29, 1947 to create a separate nation called Israel, the US has been the country’s main ally since its birth. The superpower has always had an embassy in Israel, except it was in Tel Aviv, the country’s business capital. This is akin to foreign nations having their Indian embassies in Mumbai and not New Delhi.

The controversy of international recognition of Israel’s capital, has existed almost since the country’s formation. The Palestinian people, who were displaced by the UN Partition Plan 181, have also laid claim to Jerusalem as their capital, ‘whenever’ that state is actually formed.

This is the key issue. The two-state solution has been the dream of many international leaders for decades. The world seems to be punishing Israel by not recognising Jerusalem as its capital, as a means to force the country to make sufficient concessions to help Palestinians create their own state.

How it began

But bickering between the two sides dates back to Israel’s founding. The country has officially fought eight wars and there have been two major Palestinian intifadas (uprisings), most of which were initiated by Arab nations. Israel is nestled right in the heart of the Arab world and, when it has not been fighting wars, it has been under terror attack or threat for most of this time — from Hamas, in Palestine; Hezbollah in Lebanon/Syria, and numerous other terror organisations.

I should know. In 1999, I lived in Tel Aviv for a year. Once, all residents in the apartment complex we were staying in were evacuated because the police had intelligence that there was a big bomb planted in the underground car garage. We waited for hours as robots inspected the building and cleared it for us to move back in.

Our apartment, which was across from the beach, was fewer than 200 yards from a popular bar in front of which my wife and I would walk each evening. A year after we left, the bar was completely destroyed by a suicide bombing, that killed nearly 20 people. Israel is a country which is hated in the Arab world. It is a strong democracy with rights of free speech, expression and religion — something that is unthinkable in the rest of the region. The Israeli seat of power changes regularly among political parties following free and fair elections while neighbouring countries harbour monarchies and dynasties that date back decades.

Israel has no diplomatic relationships with any country in West Asia, with the exception of Jordan and Egypt. Iran refuses Israel’s right to exist — the eradication of Israel is often a goal cited by Iran’s leaders.

Peace offering

But Israel understands. It has publicly said it is willing to offer Palestine its own state. ‘Land for peace’ has been the basis of deals that attempt to recognise a self-governing state for Palestine. During the famous Dayton Accords in 1995, President Bill Clinton stood shoulder-to-shoulder with leaders of the two states to drive the peace process forward.

So close was the promise of peace that the 104th Congress, on October 23, 1995 overwhelmingly passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. The vote was so lopsided (Senate (93–5) and the House (374–37)) that President Clinton didn’t even have to sign it into law. (When Congress votes with two-third majority, acts automatically become laws).

In Tel Aviv, I lived about six blocks from the US embassy. I was often curious why most embassies were in the financial capital, and not in Jerusalem. Israel’s parliament is in Jerusalem; its ministers are in Jerusalem; the seat of government is in Jerusalem; the Israeli Supreme Court is in Jerusalem. Every map has recognised Jerusalem as its capital.

But all the embassies were in Tel Aviv.

World pressure?

This was the way the world pressured Israel to negotiate with Palestine. The world, which helped create Israel in the UN, somehow thought it would recognise the nation of Israel but not its sovereign right to name its own capital. Even subsequent US presidents (Bush and Obama) didn’t enforce US law for the same reason. Although 134 countries independently recognise Palestine as a state, the UN still does not accord it such a status. In fact, Palestine is not even a UN member — it is only a ‘non-member observer State’.

From Israel’s point of view, peace never materialised, and so, it refused to give away land until it had rock-solid assurances that there would be peace. Even this week, over 60 protesters were killed — some, women and children — when they engaged with members of the Israel Defence Forces, attempting to penetrate the Israeli border.

President Trump was right in moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. One hopes this will bring pressure on both sides to move towards peace so that Palestine can finally be universally recognised as the independent state it so richly deserves to be. The world deserves nothing less.

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