A Pyrrhic Victory for the Palestinian Authority

On December 6, 2017, America formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel and announced plans to move its Tel Aviv embassy to the City of Gold. On Christmas Eve, Guatemala followed suit and there are rumors that the Czech Republic, Honduras, Romania, and at least seven other countries are considering the move. Despite these trends, 128-member states voted in favor of a UN measure to condemn the United States for exercising its sovereign right to recognize another country’s capital. Given the diplomatic hiccup this has already caused, watchful eyes now turn to Gaza, the West Bank, Turkey, Iran, and the international community to see how far down the abyss Palestinian reaction is willing to travel.

Jerusalem is undeniably the capital of Israel, hosting the Knesset (Parliament), Supreme Court, the Prime Minister’s Residence and the Presidential home. So, what is controversial about recognizing something that has been true for nearly 70 years?

In the odd times when peace processes exist the cornerstone of the Palestinian Authority’s negotiating position is an insistence that Israel return to the borders of 1967. In the PA’s interpretation, this would render Jerusalem a divided city with its eastern sector as the capital-site of the would-be Palestinian state. (Ironically, no mention is given that before 1967 East Jerusalem was Jordanian).

Although much of the world seems to have adopted the Palestinian argument, an examination of the relevant documents — treaties signed by Israel and various Arab states, and UN resolutions 242 and 338 — reveals that the ceasefires inked in 1949, 1967, and 1973 were not interpreted by contemporary Arab or Israeli parties as placing restrictions on civilian residential building; and not one of them mentions Jerusalem.

In recent years talk about the 1967 borders has become voluminous chatter.

But, the phrase is misleading. The ‘borders’ of 1967 actually refer to the armistice lines of 1949. And, in 1949, no side was willing to stay put.

Consider the following excerpt taken from the 1949 Armistice Agreement signed by Jordan and Israel:

It is also recognized that no provision of this Agreement shall in any way prejudice the rights, claims and positions of either Party hereto in the ultimate peaceful settlement of the Palestine question, the provisions of this Agreement being dictated exclusively by military considerations.

The legal agreements made between Jewish and Arab parties had to do with the prevention of military hardware and personnel past the Green Line. Simply put, there was no agreement on residential, or settlement, activity.

In 1967, UN Resolution 242 affirmed support for:

  1. Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict;
  2. Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force

Notice that part 1) refers only to armed forces and that part 2) calls for the acknowledgment of the sovereignty of States in the area—an interesting turn of phrase for Palestinians to insist on as in actuality Palestine was not one of those States.

In addition, if the Palestinian leadership can legitimately claim that Israel is in violation of part 1) then Israel can likewise claim with equal legitimacy that Palestinians are in violation of part 2).

These documents are not straight-forward and the conditions they touch on are far removed from the situation today. Nevertheless, they remain anchors for both supporting Israel’s settlement enterprise and condemning it.

To state the obvious, settlements are deeply misunderstood by the international community and relate directly to the status of Jerusalem.

What is important for our present discussion is that Israel considers the 1949 armistice lines—the basis for Abu Mazen’s ‘’67 Borders’—and Resolutions 242 and 338 (a document which calls for the implementation of 242 and negotiations) to allow for settlements.

For Israel, this is why building in all of Jerusalem is a prerogative; it is also why, to paraphrase Benjamin Netanyahu, countries that condemn the recognition of Israeli rights to the city are actors in a theater of the absurd.

There is an interesting moment recorded in Al Jazeera’s Palestine Papers of 2011, the most recent example of a serious attempt to negotiate between Palestinians and Israelis, where both sides acknowledge a mutual lack of recognition of the other’s national narrative.

The following is an excerpt from a conversation held between Udi Dekel, one of Ehud Olmert’s negotiators, and Dr. Samih alAbed, one of Abu Mazen’s, at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem:


I don’t think it is part of our group to discuss [UN resolution] 242’s interpretation. You believe 242 says that settlements are illegal, we don’t. We believe we have rights in these territories. The way we see it we need to make mutual concessions. We don’t see that we have something to give back to you. We are not of the position that we took something from you that we have to give back.  We want to create a Palestinian state because it is in our interest; we cannot take a ‘giving back’ approach.

alAbed’s response:

I don’t want to make political statements, but I need you to know that we do not accept your narrative, for as you know many from our people consider all of Palestine is our right and that we already gave 78%.

As evidenced here, at least when it comes to negotiations, the Palestinian leadership plays a zero-sum game. Since the ascension of Netanyahu’s government, Palestinians have placed impossible conditions for Israelis to accept: that Israel ceases to build in all the West Bank and East Jerusalem, that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel, and even to declare that the Jewish people have no historical ties to their homeland.

There is no doubt that the PA is having success tarnishing Israel’s image. Last week’s UN vote is a prime example of this pyrrhic strategy. (Even Lorde canceled an upcoming show.)

But no matter how many nonbinding votes Palestinians can harness (or how many pop singers Israeli detractors can kowtow) they are still farther than ever from achieving their stated national ambition. And with 65-member states having either motioned against, abstained from, or failed to show up to last week’s vote, only time will tell if these symbolic victories are worth the paper they are printed on.

About the Author
Alejandro Moreiras is a Ph.D. graduate student in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He holds an M.A. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a B.A. from Hampshire College with a Five College Certificate in Middle Eastern Studies.
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