Gaza and Jerusalem should be on the White House table with Bennett
By Daoud Kuttab
When US President Joe Biden meets at the Oval Office with the new Israeli Prime Minister the talk regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should focus on two issues Gaza and Jerusalem.
The current Israeli head of a rotating premiership has stated that “major diplomatic moves in either direction are off the table” during his short two-year tenure. This fits well with the current US foreign policy of focusing on confidence-building measures (CBMs) with Secretary Blinken insisting that Palestinians and Israelis “deserve equal measures of freedom, security, dignity, and prosperity.”
But as Washington realized last May such a policy will fail if the current hot spots are not seriously dealt as the 11-day Gaza-Israel fighting proved.
For CBMs to work, Israel must commit not to make things worse in the occupied territories which include East Jerusalem. More illegal settlements, house demolitions, and removing longtime residents from Jerusalem neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan must be stopped.
The hot spot in Jerusalem and the main cause of years of cold peace between Jordan and Israel under Netanyahu continue to be the Al Aqsa mosque. President Biden must impress on his Israeli visitor the need to uphold and protect the November 2014 Israel-Jordan understanding reached in Amman under the auspices of Secretary of State John Kerry. In short, that understanding states that Al Aqsa is for Muslims to pray and for all others to visit. Jordan which is accepted worldwide, including by Israel, as the custodian of holy places in Jerusalem, has no problem in Jews and others to visit the 144 dunum Muslim complex known by the UNESCO world heritage as Al-Haram al-Sharif/Al Aqsa mosque. Genuine visitors wishing to visit this holy site during non-prayer hours must adhere to the regulations of the Jerusalem Waqf council in terms of dress and in avoiding any attempt to hold prayers on the sacred Muslim site.
While the violence by the Israeli security at this Muslim site is what triggered the Gaza-Israel violence in May, the inhuman conditions due to the illegal Israeli blockade on the highly populated narrow Gaza Strip need to be addressed.
If the Bennett/Lapid coalition is intent on refusing to advance the peace process this means that they need to strictly abide by the only existing agreement with the Palestinians, the Declaration of Principles which was signed at the White House lawn during the Clinton era in September 1993. Among other things, the agreements that followed the Rose Garden signing often referred to as the Oslo Accords calls for a safe passageway between Gaza and the West Bank. The safe passage protocol signed in September 1999 was allowed to be opened for a short period and has been shut down since then. No attempt to reopen it or even discuss such a passageway because Israel wanted to strategically separate Gaza from the West Bank. Now that this unreasonable idea to permanently divide Palestine has failed and since Bennet doesn’t want a major diplomatic agreement the passage route must be reopened.
Israel can’t insist on benefiting from the unpopular (to Palestinians) of security coordination without respecting other items in that agreement. In addition to violating the agreement on the safe passage Israel also regularly violates Palestinian sovereignty by forcefully entering areas under Palestinian security rule. Destroying Palestinian homes and structures especially in Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley and denying Palestinians the basic human right to build in any part of the occupied territories is yet another formula for trouble. Article XI of the Palestinian –Israeli agreement explicitly specified that “The two sides view the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit, the integrity, and status of which will be preserved during the interim period.”
Shortly after President Biden took office last January he and his administration vowed to restore normal relations with Palestinians including reopening the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington and the US Consulate in Jerusalem. Neither of these promises has yet to be fulfilled in part due to Israeli objections and US laws that must be amended. President Biden must make sure his Israeli guest understands that Israel can’t dictate or obstruct US-Palestinian relations.
American-Palestinian relations will also require action on the Palestinian front. The US and Israel have shamefully turned a blind eye to the undemocratic decision by President Abbas to postpone elections. The US-trained Palestinian security forces also have brutally dealt with critics and protestors. America must insist on the right of Palestinians to hold free and fair elections in all of the occupied territories including East Jerusalem as agreed to in the very same Israel-Palestinian accords which were witnessed by the US. While it is sad that America and Israel are in agreement to keep five million Palestinians under permanent foreign military occupation, the very least that Washington can do in the short term is to make sure that all parties in the region understand that until a full diplomatic solution is found, all tenants of the existing agreements especially as it regards East Jerusalem and Gaza must be adhered to without exceptions.
Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on Twitter @daoudkuttab