Situation may worsen

The Biblical land of the Levant are a tinderbox of deep-rooted distrust, perception and cynicism that is perpetually poised to explode at any seemingly untoward action by a stakeholder. The recent bloodshed and mayhem in the region has less to do with the traditional Arab-Israeli angularity on the future of Palestine, and more to do with the challenges posed by the brutal advent of puritanical and revivalist Islamic forces and the sectarian issues in the region.

However, the run-up to the 2016 US presidential elections saw the dangerous replay of one of the most symbolic and contentious issues that could reignite the familiar anti-Zionist fervour in the region – the promise of shifting the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, by President Donald Trump. While it is an oft-invoked campaign bogey by most presidential nominees (made by Democrat Bill Clinton and the Republican George W Bush) to attract the Jewish lobby, it was wisely put on backpedal subsequently, as the derivative value and potential implications of such a contentious move, never made sense.

Trump too repeatedly spoke about the “eternal capital of Jewish people” and his recent reiteration to the Israeli media, “You know I’m not a person who breaks promises”, along with the nomination of the ultra-conservative David Friedman as the US ambassador to Israel, he may just end up walking-the-talk and lead towards an inferno of passions and divisions.

At the heart of the controversy, is the symbolism of Jerusalem or “Urusalima”, as it was known in the Canaanite period (2400 BC), amongst the oldest living cities in the world. It is a restive home to the three major monotheistic and Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Christian traditions, the life of Jesus is intertwined with Jerusalem and it hosts the Cenacle on Mount Zion (the site of the ‘last supper’ and the Pentecost) and of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

For Islamic adherents, the Al Aqsa mosque is the third most holy mosque after Mecca and Medina, whereas in Judaism, Jerusalem is celebrated as the spiritual capital that binds the religious consciousness and texts of the Old Testament. This civilisational, religious and emotional context and relevance for all warring claimants to the legacy of the land has ensured that the struggle to appropriate Jerusalem becomes the decisive indicator of the counter-claims in the battle for Israel and Palestine.

Israel claims, “Jerusalem has stood at the centre of the Jewish people's national and spiritual life since King David made it the capital of his kingdom in 1003 BCE”, even though the formal declaration of the same took place with the Jerusalem law proclamation, only in 1980.

Therefore, most embassies are located in Tel Aviv (including the Indian Embassy) and not in Jerusalem, as indeed most countries still dispute the Israeli ownership of East Jerusalem.
Expectedly, positions of Jerusalem are violently contested and it has become the rallying point of emotional contextualisation of the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Accepting the status of the ‘eternal capital’ of Israel, tantamount to pre-judging and validating counter-claims by the disputing parties – also, it legitimises the controversial settlement-projects made by the Israel in the past. The current impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks could potentially regress towards the hopelessly intractable positions, as the Arabs would view the US move as a decisively partisan and blunt, in favour of Israel.

Given the religio-emotional significance of Jerusalem, the emanating angst could rile the restive Arab regimes who remain committed to the Palestinian cause, and are also embroiled in the anti-IS war in the region. The embassy shift could unleash latent passions and open another front, beyond the intricacies engulfing the West Asia, with little to gain for the US, and much to lose in terms of the current issues, already seizing the region.

Hardliners in Israel argue that US has already agreed and committed to move its embassy to Jerusalem in 1995, and the delay gives credence to the Arab fatalists who do not accept the reality of Israel and seeks its destruction. A more moderate Israeli view suggests that a possible US embassy in West Jerusalem may not foreclose the Palestinian sovereign claims and may in fact nudge the Palestinians towards accepting compromises that would be inherent in arriving at a final solution.

Competing ideology
However, irrespective of the counter-claims, it is essentially a matter of timing that warrants more prudence and temporary relegation of the issue to the backburner. Across West Asia, a competing ideology that is virulent and obscurantist is sweeping the region as an alternative to the existing Arab leadership forms.  It is this cancerous strain that could get permanently injected into the relatively secular moorings of the Fatah dispensation in the West Bank (a more hardline Hamas dispensation runs the Gaza Strip). The entire Palestinian cause risks a religio-fundamentalist eruption that could belie and make waste of the arduous steps towards a plausible ‘two-nation solution’.

Donald Trump’s penchant for provocative moves finds a willing suitor in the right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is still smarting from previous US President Barack Obama’s support for a UN Security Council Resolution that criticised Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Threatening with intent, Trump has invited Netanyahu to Washington this month, though it is hoped that better sense would prevail and the overall security calculus and the additional threat to American lives, assets and equations in the region will slow down Donald Trump’s initial enthusiasm.

The US embassy move, along with Trump’s open hostility towards the Iran nuclear deal, on which he brazenly stated, “my number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran”, threatens to redraw the infractions and push the region in a spiral of hitherto unprecedented violence and antipathy towards the US. An unnecessary and wholly avoidable spectre looms with such belligerence and incitement.

(The writer is former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Puducherry)

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