The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has formally declared that Palestinians will no longer accept the US as a mediator in the Middle East peace process following Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
In his strongest public statement since Trump’s announcement last week, Abbas called the move a “crime” that threatened world peace. He demanded the United Nations take charge of the peace process as Washington was no longer “fit” for the task.
Abbas was speaking at a hastily convened meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul, where members were called upon to recognise a Palestinian state amid strong condemnations of both the US and Israel.
“Jerusalem is and will forever be the capital of the Palestinian state,” Abbas told delegates. “We do not accept any role of the United States in the political process from now on. Because it is completely biased towards Israel.”
Of all the issues at the heart of the enduring conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, none is as sensitive as the status of Jerusalem. The holy city has been at the centre of peace-making efforts for decades.
Seventy years ago, when the UN voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, Jerusalem was defined as a separate entity under international supervision. In the war of 1948 it was divided, like Berlin in the cold war, into western and eastern sectors under Israeli and Jordanian control respectively. Nineteen years later, in June 1967, Israel captured the eastern side, expanded the city’s boundaries and annexed it – an act that was never recognised internationally.
Israel routinely describes the city, with its Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy places, as its “united and eternal” capital. For their part, the Palestinians say East Jerusalem must be the capital of a future independent Palestinian state. The unequivocal international view, accepted by all previous US administrations, is that the city’s status must be addressed in peace negotiations.
Recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital puts the US out of step with the rest of the world, and legitimises Israeli settlement-building in the east – considered illegal under international law.
Also at the meeting were King Abdullah of Jordan, the Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, the emirs of Qatar and Kuwait, and the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who called on all Muslim nations to unite to defend the rights of Palestinians.
The summit was opened by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who regards himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause. He hopes to unite Muslim leaders behind a tough final statement from the meeting.
Erdoğan called for the acceleration of the recognition of Palestine by international institutions, denouncing the US move as an unlawful and provocative “red line” for Muslims, and describing Israel as an occupying and “terror” state.
In a sign of cracks in the unity of Muslim countries – and reflecting the wider tensions in the region – Saudi Arabia and Egypt were represented at a relatively junior level, and took a backseat in the proceedings.
In comments pointedly aimed at Saudi Arabia, Rouhani said the only reason Trump dared recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was because some in the region were seeking to establish ties to Israel.
Rouhani’s remarks – and the prominence of countries closer to Iran at the summit – suggest there is a risk that the contentious issue of Jerusalem will be sucked into the escalating confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran.
Much of the language on Wednesday morning echoed that used in an emergency Arab League meeting in Cairo at the weekend, when Arab foreign ministers demanded that the US rescind Trump’s decision.
Analysts raised doubts as to whether Turkey’s leadership could bridge gaps in the Muslim political community, which is divided along Shia and Sunni lines.
Despite the strength of the condemnations the meeting appeared to have fallen short of the hopes of Palestinians for a display of unity.
The peace process has been at death’s door since the former secretary of state John Kerry’s peace mission ended in failure in 2014. But the international community – apart from the US – is united in saying recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is disastrous for any hopes of reviving meaningful talks. The status of Jerusalem is one of the pivotal issues that diplomats and peacemakers have said must be agreed between the two parties in negotiations.
Palestinians will see Trump’s announcement as the end of their hopes and demands for East Jerusalem as a capital of a future independent state. While few want a return to violence, many will feel diplomatic efforts have got them no closer to a state of their own.
The Israeli government will be thrilled. Ever since it captured (and later annexed) East Jerusalem in the 1967 six-day war, Israel has claimed the city as its “eternal and undivided” capital, and has longed for international recognition. Some 200,000 Israelis living in illegal settlements will also celebrate.
Aaron Stein, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told AFP before the meeting he believed Muslim leaders would merely “issue a boilerplate condemnation”. “What that actually means is anyone’s guess,” he added.
There are fears that regional tensions may be fanned further by the US vice-president, Mike Pence’s visit early next week, originally billed as focusing on the experience of Christians in the Middle East.
Abbas has already said he will refuse to meet Pence in protest, and Christian Palestinian leaders have also come under pressure to boycott his visit.
Trump’s announcement last week prompted an outpouring of anger in the Muslim and Arab world. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to denounce Israel and show solidarity with the Palestinians.
Firing aimed at Israel from inside the Palestinian coastal enclave of Gaza that began after the announcement continued on Wednesday morning. The Israeli air force – which has killed four Palestinians in Gaza in recent strikes – retaliated, wounding several Palestinians.
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