Jerusalem, In Search of an Honest Broker


There is an interesting link on the White House website. Click and you will find a blunt statement. “President Trump stands in solidarity with Israel to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between our two nations and to promote security and prosperity for all. Stand with President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu.” There, of course, is no alternative link that asks the reader to stand with President Donald Trump and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the same way.

No one who opened this link before Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel last week would have been surprised. The United States has always been a staunch supporter of Israel, and maintained a special relationship with it. Yet even so, the United States has sought, with some degree of success, to be an “honest broker” — an actor that is impartial and above the dispute taking place — in the ongoing negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.

For some time now, however, it’s been increasingly clear that the U.S. “honest broker” role was always more of an aspiration than a reality. Even though it seeks to portray itself as impartial, throughout the history of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, the United States has played a much more complex and contradictory role. With last week’s Jerusalem policy shift, Trump’s bias was laid bare.

That’s why the announcement has led to an outpouring of protest and condemnation across the globe. The unilateral move has been criticized in Western capitals, as well as by regional actors in the Middle East and North Africa. And despite the administration’s statement that it still supports a two-state solution to the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, provided it was “agreed to by both sides,” there are few who believe this claim. One click on the White House link shows where the president’s loyalties lie.

The Jewel in the Crown 

Jerusalem has always been a prized possession. Its religious significance has cemented its place in history. In modern times, the city has been subject to controversial occupations. Almost exactly 100 years ago, the British occupied Jerusalem and put it under martial law. General Allenby came to the conquered city on foot to demonstrate his “humble” possession, vowing that the city would be protected.

But the soldier’s promise, made on the heels of his victory over and occupation of a defeated people, did not reflect reality. Britain’s politicians had already promised Palestine (including Jerusalem) to the Zionists in the Balfour declaration, and agreed with the French (in the Sykes-Picot agreement) that they would divide the spoils of war in the Middle East between them.

And so it came to pass. In 1920 Britain was awarded the mandate for Palestine, and Jerusalem was the seat of government. Decades of violent division ensued. Thirty years on, in 1947 the British “gifted” the city an uncertain fate when it turned it over to the newly formed United Nations to decide a solution between Zionist and Palestinian claims. The United Nations declared that Jerusalem’s future status would be subject to “international trusteeship.” In 1948 after the state of Israel was established and in the wake of the Arab-Israeli war, however, the city was divided between the two sides. Jerusalem became symbolic of the competing claims of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism.

In 1967, after Israel captured Palestinian East Jerusalem and the holy places in the Six Day War, it unilaterally declared the whole of the city its capital. Hence, diplomatic efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian and wider Arab-Israeli conflict have always had to contend with sensitivities over Jerusalem’s contested history and the important symbolism the city inspires. At times, the city itself has helped create momentum for peace. In 1977, for example, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and his address to the Israeli Knesset was hailed as historic. It led to U.S.-mediated negotiations, eventually resulting in the Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Sadat, however, paid a high price for his Jerusalem visit. In 1981, he was assassinated by gunmen who violently opposed his peace deal with Israel.

Diplomats and peacemakers generally agree that Jerusalem is the most significant challenge in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Setting aside the usual diplomatic challenges of security and politics, it is the religious status of the city that accounts for its import to peace. Jerusalem is sacred for billions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, including the city’s own religious adherents who traverse it daily to their places of worship. State leaders and diplomats recognize that finding the winning formula for peace in Jerusalem would sine qua non create the momentum for peace in the wider Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1999, when Palestinians and Israelis undertook Track II negotiations on Jerusalem as part of the Oslo process, it was this formula that they strived to determine. Negotiators sought to prepare the ground as final peace talks loomed ahead of them.

While the Oslo peace process was not ideal, it did offer the best hope for a negotiated solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Deeply embedded within that process was the recognition of a two-state solution — one in which Jerusalem was key. 

‘We Must Learn From Belfast’

One portion of the Track II negotiations on Jerusalem took place in secret in Belfast. At the time Belfast, like Jerusalem, was a city marred by a history of violent conflict. Belfast was a deeply divided city and its inhabitants had been at war with each other. The previous year, the Belfast Peace Agreement had brought the Troubles to an end. But despite the peace, the people of Belfast faced the task of sharing a city that suffered from deep demographic divisions. Like Jerusalem today, many lines within Belfast divided its population. The city center was surrounded by a security ring of steel, with few truly shared spaces. Even after the peace accords, Belfast was still characterized by sectarian neighborhoods, graphically illustrated by murals, painted sidewalks, graffiti, and so-called peace walls.

Still, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators arriving for the talks encountered a city where the business of living together post-conflict was reflected in shared services, the growth of Belfast’s commercial center, common approaches to policing and security, and an ecumenical community bridging that a generation ago had been unthinkable. As a facilitator of the Belfast visit, I arranged for the negotiators to meet with the police and other emergency service providers, community activists from flashpoint interfaces where the segregated communities abutted each other, ex-prisoners and paramilitaries, housing officers, and even the head of the refuse collection service.

While the outcome of the talks cannot be directly linked to Belfast, it was evident to me and other facilitators that as negotiators sat down to discuss Jerusalem, the art of the possible was evident all around them. As maps were rolled out across the table detailing municipal boundaries, service infrastructure, police stations, checkpoints, and holy places, the real business of negotiation took place. From this negotiated, sensitively facilitated, and mediated approach, the peacemakers in Belfast inspired a shared future and an open city vision for Jerusalem.

The discussions were not always easy. There were disagreements, particularly when it came to the discussion of security and policing arrangements for the city. Yet it did become evident that through steadfast, informed, and patient negotiation, consensus could be reached. In Belfast, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed that Jerusalem could be one open city and the capital of two states. The negotiators had even begun to figure out arrangements for sharing the Holy Basin of religious sites. I recall the chief Palestinian negotiator, Faisal Husseini, shaking hands with his Israeli counterparts on the final evening as they declared that the Belfast experience had made them realize that “peace in a city for two peoples is within our grasp.” Ron Pundak, an architect of the Oslo Accords, concurred, but also said, “We must learn from Belfast. We must be determined to share our city in a way that never brings [us] to the point of enmity where we have [peace] walls in Jerusalem that divide us like they do here.”

This consensus paved the way for the Camp David negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Liberation Organization President Yasser Arafat. This was the point at which America clearly tried to portray itself as the “honest broker.” At Camp David in July 2000, Jerusalem was a core issue in the Clinton administration’s arbitration.

Tussles over sovereignty and sharing, particularly as it related to Palestinian claims in East Jerusalem, were apparent from the start. Arafat’s chief negotiator was Abbas, the current Palestinian president. The position Abbas outlined reflected the Belfast consensus fairly closely: “All of East Jerusalem should be returned to Palestinian sovereignty. The Jewish Quarter and Western Wall should be placed under Israeli authority, not Israeli sovereignty. An open city and cooperation on municipal services.” Importantly, the two sides also agreed that holy places could be administered independently. This would be a significant step toward protection of religious freedoms in the city. Yet when the talks collapsed and the blame game commenced between Israel and the Palestinians, America’s mediation also came under fire.

Calling For an ‘Honest Broker’

Although Camp David failed and the events of the last 17 years have made peace seem like a far-off possibility, there remained a glimmer of hope. With Trump’s announcement, however, visions of a U.S.-mediated peace are virtually moribund for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, the fiction of the United States as “honest broker” has been exposed once and for all.

In an emergency session of the 15-member council last Friday, every member of U.N. Security Council except the United States itself condemned Trump’s decision. In a joint statement, the ambassadors from the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, Italy, and France stated that the action was “not in line with Security Council resolutions and was unhelpful in terms of prospect for peace in the region.” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said he opposed “any unilateral measures that would jeopardize the prospect of peace for Israelis and Palestinians.” He added, “in this moment of great anxiety, I want to make it clear — there is no alternative to the two-state solution … There is no plan B.” The United Nations operates on an international consensus that makes clear that Palestinian East Jerusalem, including the Old City, which Israel took in the Six Day War, is occupied territory. In the past the Security Council has ensured that its resolutions on Jerusalem have offered the hope of a shared capital as part of a two-state solution, in contrast to the fait accompli Trump gifted to Israel.

Trump has made a deliberate and partisan decision that swings in favor of Israel’s claims to Jerusalem and legitimates them through the powerful principle of “recognition.” His maneuver in no way reflects neutrality, nor does it suggest the desire to act as an honest broker of a process that was underpinned for decades by American commitment to a two-state solution.

Although U.S. politicians and policymakers had long promoted their role as neutral mediators, they were frequently criticized for being less even-handed to the Palestinians. Senior U.S. defense officials, such as now-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Gen. David Petraeus, have suggested that perception of U.S. pro-Israel bias harms American security interests and is an obstacle to peace. Once Trump came to office, a combination of factors seem to have swayed him to make the decision about Jerusalem, including the power of America’s evangelical Christian movement, elements of the pro-Israel lobby that are seen as key supporters for the president, and what can best be described as a lack of sympathy for Palestinian rights.

Compounding this, however, has been a distinct reluctance among American policymakers to allow other potential “honest brokers” to take up the diplomatic slack. Washington and Jerusalem have long stymied Arab, U.N., E.U., and other initiatives to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For example, the United States nearly always vetoes U.N. Security Council resolutions censuring Israel over obstacles to peace, such as the building of illegal settlements in Palestinian-occupied territory. In 2007, an end of mission report from the United Nations’ top diplomat in Jerusalem was leaked. In it he blamed the United States for siding with Israel and abandoning its role as an even-handed mediator. This was true under the Bush and Obama administrations, and will likely continue to be the case under Trump.

So we must, as Trump himself said last week, recognize a reality. The reality is that America is no longer the “honest broker.” Does this mean Europe could eventually fill the role, despite American and Israeli reluctance? The European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has stated that Europe will strive for deeper involvement under a framework where “the only realistic solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is based on two states with Jerusalem as the capital of both.” The United States may not make it easy for any other actor to assume this role in the near future. Still, now is the time for the European Union to make clear that it does not need U.S. permission to pursue the international consensus for peace in the Middle East. It is time to move from words to deeds.


Beverley Milton-Edwards is a Professor of Politics at Queen’s University in Belfast and Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution Doha. At Queen’s University, Milton-Edwards runs an M.A. program in Violence, Terrorism and Security. She is the author of many books including: The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, a people’s history (Routledge), and Contemporary Politics in the Middle East (Polity). From 1999-2003 Milton-Edwards served as an advisor on special projects to the E.U. Special Envoy to the Middle East Peace Process and to the E.U.’s Foreign Policy and Security Chief.

Image: Israel Tourism/Flickr