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Obama Disappoints on Jerusalem and the Middle East


While it should be understood that Obama is a shrewd politician on the make and looking for votes, his recent statements on the Middle East indicate that he will represent less change than expected. While it is clear he is better than McCain on most domestic and foreign policy issues, it is also becoming clear that he is a middle of the road Democrat who will not rock the Imperial Love Boat or significantly change the course of the American Empire toward endless war and militarism.

On the Middle East, Obama leaves much to be desired. He stated that Jerusalem should belong to Israel as its capital, even if this would violate international law and the legitimate claims of the Palestinians as defined by several UN resolutions. In his speech before the Israeli lobby group, APAIC, Obama , stated: "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."

To his credit, Obama later backed down and corrected himself saying that the final status of Jerusalem would have to be negotiated as part of a two state solution, but this provided little reassurance to the Palestinians who have no reason to expect American even handedness regarding their 60 year dispute with the Israeli occupation since 1948.

Jerusalem, a city with a long history of conquest and war, has also been a key source of the current conflict between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Muslim world. Admittedly, Jerusalem has a mythical place in Zionist historical narratives as the ancient capital of David and Solomon’s kingdoms, the place of the Second and Third Temples, and as the location of the Wailing Wall.

For Christians, it is the city of "the Passion" where Jesus preached, was arrested, crucified, and rose from the dead. Christian sacred sites include the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, the tomb of the Virgin Mary, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the place of Ascension.

For Muslims it is the place of the Temple Mount where Mohammad is alleged to have ascended to heaven. All three major monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity consider Jerusalem a holy city at the center of their faith.

In November of 1947, just prior to the founding of Israel, the UN Partition Plan constituted Jerusalem as a "corpus seperatum," a special international regime demilitarized and administered by the UN and a neutral governor that was neither Israeli or Palestinian. This was felt necessary to guarantee the interests of the three major religions and access to their holy sites. In 1949, the UN passed UN Resolution 303, making Jerusalem an international city administered by the UN. Israel did everything in its power to prevent implementation of this and subsequent UN resolutions on Jerusalem.

In 1950, the Knesset defiantly declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel, declaring that it had been the capital unofficially since the founding of Israel in1948. Yet, Israel was only in control of the western part of the city. In the 1967 war, however, Israel conquered the entire city, including Arab East Jerusalem. Two weeks after the war ended, Israel infuriated the Arab and Muslim world by extending the law, administration, and jurisdiction of the state of Israel to East Jerusalem, and declared it the reunified "eternal" capital of Israel.

On June 30, 1980, the Knesset adopted a fundamental law claiming the whole of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the state of Israel. In 1982, the Arab Fez Plan called for "a Palestinian State with Jerusalem as its capital." Nevertheless, successive Israel governments began demolishing buildings, sacking the Moroccan Quarter, and ethnically cleansing the city as tens of thousands of Arabs were expelled so their land and homes could be given to Jews. By 1994, Jews were finally a majority in Jerusalem. The story of Jerusalem is a microcosm of the story of Israel/Palestine writ large.

The 2003 Geneva Accord

By mid-October, 2003, many prominent Israelis and Palestinians initialed a "virtual" final status peace agreement in Geneva called the "Geneva Accord," The participants worked on it for three years. It is an elaboration of the "Clinton parameters" and the tentative agreement negotiated at Taba in January 2001.

The Geneva Accord is unofficial, but it offers hope to both Israelis and Palestinians that peace is possible as an alternative to the current violent impasse and diplomatic vacuum. It offers a rational plan that draws on wide support from Israelis and Palestinians and addresses such issues as borders, settlements, security, refugees, and Jerusalem.

In December 2003, the Geneva Peace Project stated that Jerusalem should be placed under "joint sovereignty." Under this scheme, the Jewish quarters will become Israel and the Arab, Muslim, and Christian quarters will become Palestinian. In the old city, the Wailing Wall and the Jewish quarters would be retained by Israel, but the rest, including the Temple Mount, would remain Palestinian.

It is essential that Obama understand that Jerusalem is still contested territory between the Palestinians and Israeli, even while Israel unilaterally incorporates it into the Jewish State and fills it with Jewish settlements. It is unlikely that peace will come to the Middle East as long as Jerusalem is defined as exclusively belonging to Israel. Only a compromise can offer a just solution. Most governments in the world recognize this by placing their diplomatic offices in Tel Aviv.

Jerusalem is one of the remaining key items on the list of outstanding issues yet to be resolved satisfactorily by the parties in Middle East peace negotiations. Obama’s one-sided statement was foolish and clearly a mistake.

Some say it was merely opportunism and that Obama was playing to Jewish voters in the forthcoming Presidential elections. Nothing new there. Nevertheless, it does not augur a "new politics" for the Middle East, only more of the same.

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