Earlier today the World Heritage Committee of the UNESCO voted on a resolution that refers to the holy sites by their Muslim names only, implying that the Jewish historical connection to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount is of no concern. This follows another biased draft resolution that was passed earlier this month by a different UNESCO commission, which you can read here (pdf).
I do not intend to reiterate the arguments on the UNESCO resolutions in this post. Suffice it to say, the deep and relentless UN bias against Israel continues year after year, allowing the Palestinians to claim many ‘victories’ of dubious value to their cause. All this is possible due to the many Muslim states who side with the Palestinians, while there’s only one Jewish state with few reliable allies. Some countries, most importantly the United States, have a long track record of voting with Israel (blocking many such resolutions in the UN Security Council), but Israel’s few reliable allies are vastly outnumbered by PLO allies and if Israel doesn’t enjoy the support of the Europeans, resolutions will more or less automatically pass. The European states range from unreliable allies, such as the UK and Germany (to mention the most influential), to semi-hostile countries such as the Scandinavian states and France. On various UN resolutions the Europeans will often abstain, if they don’t vote in favor.
It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me why the Europeans play along with this game, but I have some ideas. Firstly, you can of course look at domestic political considerations, where Muslims greatly outnumber Jews and their loyal Christian allies, or point back to the Cold War division between Left and Right on the Israeli-Arab conflict, which continues to shape policy today. Secondly, if you look beyond the domestic concerns you also see that the EU has for a long time tried to coordinate its Foreign and Security Policy, albeit with mixed results. To put it bluntly, effective coordination occurs when influential member-states don’t care enough about the issue and this might sometimes be the case on Israeli-Palestinian issues (I wrote an essay on the difficulty coordinating foreign policy with regards to Russia in 2010. You can download the PDF here if you’re interested). Due to disagreements among member-states the coordination efforts may lead to the whole or nearly whole bloc abstaining. Thirdly, reasons pertaining to the national interest. EU trade with the Arab countries surpasses trade with Israel by a huge margin. Under the EU Mediterranean Partnership the EU exports goods and services to the value of €179.5 billion (2013) while in the same year exports to Israel were worth €17.9 billion. European countries know that voting against Israel or abstaining, doesn’t come at a cost, while voting with Israel is more likely to have consequences. While the United States for the most part recognizes the value of Israel to its national security, the EU has less reason to “vote against its [perceived] interests” by siding with Israel. The EU has many concerns in its immediate neighborhood, not the least the refugee crisis in recent years, which naturally cause it put its relationship with Israel in second place, well after Turkey, the Saudis, Morocco and Egypt etc. Fourthly and last, the EU views itself as world power in terms of soft power. It has a moral agenda based on the spread of democracy and human rights, which in its ‘purest’ form often stands in opposition to issues of national security and the national interest. It’s hardly a secret that Israel has been repeatedly condemned by EU members, and the organization as a whole, for alleged violations of human rights. In my own view, the international community including the EU, is very ‘trigger-happy’ when it comes to condemning Israel and often can’t be bothered by contradictory evidence. It’s more of a gut reaction than anything resembling the deliberations in a court of justice.
In truth, these issues need to be studied in depth in order to come up with a satisfying explanation. The various ideas aren’t mutually exclusive, to the contrary my best guess is a combination of all of the above.
Why this is bad for the ‘Peace Process’®
One could argue that most of these resolutions and condemnations are ‘symbolic’, carrying little weight on the ground. However, I would argue that there is a price to be paid for all this and the one to pay it is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process itself. In order to explain what I mean, let us briefly take a step back.
We’ve seen plenty of resolutions and actions siding with the Palestinians, such as the latest UNESCO resolutions and increased recognition of a Palestinian state as well as membership in many international organizations. For a long time the common consensus among Europeans, as well as Americans, has been that more pressure on Israel is needed to advance the peace process. The expected outcome of such pressure has been that Israel will return to the negotiating table and offer enough concessions for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Yet, we are still here far removed from a peace agreement. While it’s arguable true that the Oslo process wouldn’t have started without such pressure, it does tend to ignore subsequent events and the implications of the failed negotiations. Perhaps one could argue, the way more radical anti-Israel elements argue, that the pressure simply hasn’t been nearly strong enough, but I believe that the terrorism and rejectionism (Wiktionary: the political position of rejecting a nation’s right to exist, usually specifically the right of Israel to exist) of the Palestinians make further pressure on Israel unwarranted and counter-productive. If Israel feels itself subjected to unfair criticism the result is likely to be what we see today; a dismissal of almost any criticism and a feeling of isolation. By subjecting Israel to relentless condemnation and ‘one-sided’ UN resolutions the international community has contributed to a situation where it’s unlikely that the Israeli Left will form the government instead of joining it as a junior partner. Israelis prefer someone who will stand up against external pressure and undue foreign influence and rejecting such is a sure way to score domestic political points. Most countries probably work that way.
Consider Obama’s efforts to restart the peace process during the last almost 8 years. Early on it was decided to create ‘daylight’ between the United States and Israel, apparently in the belief that this would further isolate and pressure Israel which in turn would aid the peace process. It got us nowhere, on the contrary we’re further away from negotiations than 8 years ago. The Palestinians seem to believe that if the international community champions its positions and puts pressure on Israel they can withhold necessary concessions and wait until their relative position has been strengthened. Furthermore, with the encouragement that the international community signals, it stands to reason that they would seek more resolutions, memberships and just about everything besides actually negotiating. You may object that it’s clearly in the Palestinian interest to want a state as soon as possible and the gains they make pale in comparison to the end-goal of a state of their own, but both sides play a very long game, with millennia in the rear-window and many generations ahead in front of them. Both sides currently work on improving their relative positions for the future rather than adopting the contemporary Western mindset of finding immediate solutions to problems. In the Middle Eastern mindset there is much less of an urgency to solve the issues now. Only the Israeli Left seems to share the Western perspective of a solution that should have come about yesterday. A few years back, then defense minister Moshe Yaalon decried Western “solutionism” and “now-ism”, saying that “If we sent a man to the moon and invented the iphone, can we not solve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? Only God can solve certain problems, but the Western Mind believes if can solve anything.“.
The Power of Symbolic Acts
If a third party wishes to play a positive role in furthering the peace process it may be a good idea to understand the Israeli mindset, where the feeling of being under siege by a biased international community is strong. Israelis feel that the state is strong, but ultimately very vulnerable. Few people put much faith in the political establishment, while the Israel Defense Forces is the most trusted institution. Condemnation of the army is therefore perceived as near-identical to condemnation of the people itself. If the third party actor would be clearer in backing Israel’s right to exist and defend itself, doesn’t automatically condemn Israel or abstain on biased resolutions of symbolic value touching upon the very soul of the nation (for example the recent UNESCO debacle), it can be viewed as impartial, at least by Israel.
If third parties undertook symbolic acts in support of Israel, while not affecting the permanent status agreements yet to be negotiated, they could begin to break Israel’s sense of being under siege where no one can be relied upon in case things go wrong. A pro-peace strategy cannot disregard the power of symbolic acts to send clear messages, if it recognizes one of the problems on the Israeli side (the main Palestinian problem being its continued rejectionism). Following the UNESCO resolution lawmakers from 17 countries called to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move their embassies there. A symbolic act to be sure, unlikely to have much effect. On the flip side, keeping embassies in Tel Aviv and pretending, as much of the world media and governments do, that Tel Aviv is in fact the capital of Israel regardless of where the core government institutions are located, is equally symbolic. It represents an undermining of Israeli claims to western Jerusalem as its capital. To me, as I’m writing this in Jerusalem, the lack of recognition appears to be a ludicrous symbolic act, contrary to the facts on the ground. I understand the reasoning behind this, but it should be understood that does nothing to further the efforts of peace and to the contrary strengthens the siege mentality.
In other words, if one wishes to strengthen the peace process there are two main things you could do: one, engage with Palestinian rejectionism, and two, show Israel that the world will not abandon it if things go wrong and that it has its back – a tough job to be sure, given the Gaza disengagement debacle and subsequent events.
The latter comes in two parts, one part is now and is mostly symbolic, while the other is for later and needs to be meaningful. Undoubtedly guarantees of actual value would need to made at the time of signing a peace agreement, but in order to even get there the following symbolic steps should be considered:
- Move the embassies to western Jerusalem, while avoiding pre-empting the status of East Jerusalem
- Vote against anti-Israel resolutions in the UN and put forth balanced motions instead
- Recognize and respect the Jewish history and importance of Jerusalem, Hebron and other holy sites, and use “Judea and Samaria” in conjuction with the West Bank when referring to Areas A, B and C of the Oslo Accords
- Recognize the rights of the Jewish people to continue to dwell and worship in and around the holy places, even those under future Palestinian sovereignty with mutually agreed upon terms
- Strongly condemn Iran’s aggressive statements against Israel and boost sanctions against Hamas, Hizbollah and those who supply them with money and/or arms
- Insist upon Israel’s right to remain a Jewish state as long as all citizens enjoy the same political and civil rights and obligations
- Clearly condemn all acts of terrorism against Israeli civilians without adding a “but, ..” which in practice makes excuses for such acts. If Israel must be condemned for various wrongdoings it should happen separately when these issues arise, not as automatic additions to any Palestinian wrongdoing
- Strongly condemn Palestinian incitement to violence and glorification of terrorists, as well as withhold funds to the PA for as long as it pays salaries to convicted terrorists
- Insist upon the Temple Mount being open to members of all faiths, where everyone can visit, and renounce Palestinian resistance to this as illegitimate, while upholding Muslim rights to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock
- Invest in joint Israeli-Palestinian projects for economic development, both inside Israel and in Areas B and C (Israelis are prohibited from visiting Area A)
None of the above serves to preempt the final status agreements. Adopting these measures could however change the conversation and help break the impasse. Of course, I don’t expect the international community to do anything that may seem pro-Israeli, even if it’s merely symbolic. Each country has its own reasons why it won’t change its position or voting behavior anytime soon, while the peace process is dead for many reasons (just not buried yet).