Jerusalem: The silence of Sri Lanka

Thursday, 14 December 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Sanja De Silva Jayatilleka

On Friday 8 December, eight of the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council called an emergency meeting. It was called by Bolivia, Egypt, France, Italy, Senegal, Sweden, UK and Uruguay, in response to President Trump’s unilateral declaration that the United States recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. 

Writing in Japan Today Edith M. Lederer reported that “One by one, 14 members of the U.N. Security Council spoke out against President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital… some with regret and some with anger at the 15th member, the United States.” 

Speaking from Jerusalem at the start of the emergency meeting of the Security Council, Nikolay Mladenov, UN Special Coordinator on the Situation in the Middle-East said: “For both Israel and Palestine, Jerusalem will remain an integral part of their national identity”.

He said: “The UN position is clear. Jerusalem is a final status issue, for which a comprehensive, just and lasting solution must be achieved through negotiation…” Expressing his concern in the context of President Trump’s announcement that there was “potential risk of violent escalation”, he warned that if a solution is not found “it risks being engulfed in the vortex of religious radicalism throughout the Middle East.”

Violation of 

several resolutions

All of the UN Security Council members, except for Ambassador Nicky Haley of the United States, said that the US President’s statement violated a number of Security Council and General Assembly resolutions. Several including the Ambassador of Sweden said it “contradicts international law”. 

The Swedish Ambassador added that 40% of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were Palestinian and that UN resolutions had previously ruled that any changes to the character and status of Jerusalem were null and void. He also stated that all members of the EU were unanimous in the decision to call the emergency meeting. France said that it was “greatly alarmed by the risk of escalation” and what was at stake was the “legitimacy of the Security Council”. 

Bolivia’s Ambassador Sasha Llorenty Soliz said the US declaration undermined “the chance of achieving fair and lasting peace” and that it affected the multi-cultural and multi-religious identity of Jerusalem. He said the US statement was damaging and irresponsible, and will have an impact on the entire region. The outspoken Ambassador said that the situation in Palestine was the “most prolonged military occupation in modern history” and if the Security Council doesn’t take the responsibility for “decisions and measures”, the “Security Council will become an occupied territory” and “will have to add itself to the list of settlements by the occupying power”.

China said it was “highly concerned” that it “will trigger new conflicts” in the region. The Ambassador said that China stood for a two state solution with East Jerusalem as the Capital of Palestine. He also said that China had put forward proposals for a peace settlement. 

The Russian Ambassador said that it had proposed a summit in Russia for all parties to come to an agreement. Russia, he said, was for a solution with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

US Ambassador Nicky Haley, speaking at the emergency meeting said that President Trump “acted to no longer deny the will of the American people”. She said the declaration “reflected an honest assessment of reality” adding that it will help the peace process when people are honest with each other. She added that the “UN has been one of the foremost centres of hostility to Israel”. She said that the US will not stand by when Israel is unfairly attacked and that the US will not be lectured to by countries that lack any credibility when it comes to treating Israelis and Palestinians fairly.” 

The ‘lectures’ came from all those present there, except for the US and Israel, which had been invited to the emergency session with other non-members, Palestine and Jordan. It is obvious that all Security Council members except the US feel strongly that President Trump’s declaration would lead to an escalation of violence in the Middle East, a region that has already suffered more than any other. 

Significant timing

The timing of President Trump’s statement is also significant given that two new initiatives for a settlement had been proposed and welcomed. The question arises as to why President Trump chose this moment to announce recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, when it could clearly jeopardise ongoing initiatives for peace in the region. If this was clear to most of the world, including its allies, how was it that the United States found this an opportune moment for such an announcement?

In July this year the China Daily reported a proposal of “a tripartite dialogue mechanism among China, Palestine and Israel to promote major projects to assist the Palestinian side. Under the proposal, China will host a symposium on peace between Palestine and Israel later this year.” 

Chinese Special Envoy for the Middle East Issue Gong Xiaosheng had told Xinhua in a recent interview that “Israel, which previously did not want any other country except the United State to get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, has now changed its attitude and is willing to engage China in the peace process.”

Dr. Yoram Evron, a Lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Haifa, writing in August this year in The Diplomat says that the 2017 Chinese proposals are the first to be made “in the context of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) vision. This vision has unprecedentedly advanced China’s interest in the Middle East, and its stake in regional stability has grown significantly. Concomitantly, OBOR provides China with unprecedented means to influence regional processes in ways that it finds acceptable under its ‘business first’ approach to the Middle East”. 

Commenting on China’s motivation for the proposals he says: “As Beijing regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a major destabilising factor in the region, OBOR provides it with clear motivation, and equips it with economic-political tools, to promote its resolution.” 

In May, the Middle East Monitor reported that a Russian initiative had been welcomed by President Abbas who said after meeting President Putin at Sochi that “solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be ‘impossible’ without Moscow taking part in the peace process”. It said that the Russian state news agency Tass had reported the Palestinian leader as saying “It is impossible to solve the Palestinian issue without Russia’s meaningful participation in the peace process…That is what we have been emphasising at all international meetings” . 

Given Russia’s recent success in Syria, it is unsurprising that a Russian initiative was welcomed in the region with renewed hope and optimism after decades of unsuccessful negotiations interrupted by regular and bloody conflict at intolerable human cost, a repeated reminder of a helpless humanity, powerless in the face of prolonged and horrendous human suffering. 

Strong European allies of the United States, the Prime Minister of Britain, the President of France, Germany’s Chancellor and the Prime Minister of Italy made statements disagreeing with the US declaration, calling it “unhelpful” and “regrettable”, and appealed for the status of Jerusalem to be resolved “in the framework of a two state solution”.

An intifada has already been called by both Hamas and Hezbollah. Demonstrations have taken place in Cairo, Gaza and the West Bank and Paris. How does this help move the peace process along, as the US claimed in the aftermath of the announcement?

The UN Secretary General speaking to the press at UN Headquarters in New York condemned “any unilateral measures that would jeopardise the prospect of peace for Israelis and Palestinians”.

The Pope said that “Jerusalem is a unique city,” and that it was, “sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, where the Holy Places for the respective religions are venerated, and it has a special vocation to peace.” He said “I wish to make a heartfelt appeal to ensure that everyone is committed to respecting the status quo of the city, in accordance with the relevant resolutions of the United Nations”.

Sri Lanka’s stand

What is Sri Lanka’s current stand on this, the most vexing and the oldest issue in international relations? There have been several editorials in the Sri Lankan press condemning the US announcement. The Foreign Ministry has remained silent, perhaps due to Sri Lanka’s new alliance with the United States. Can it articulate Sri Lanka’s traditional position and risk the annoyance of its new patron, or does its silence on the issue question the foreign policy direction of the Unity Government? 

The SLFP wing of the Unity Government has traditionally been supportive of the Palestinian position, with President Rajapaksa heading the Sri Lanka Committee for Solidarity with Palestine, while also ensuring that Israel’s concerns were accommodated. The SLFP never failed to make a public stand of its support for Palestine. With the change in the leadership of the SLFP, has this policy changed? The Middle East is not a region that Sri Lanka can ignore, given that a large percentage of its foreign earnings emanating from the region, to say nothing of the imperatives of common humanity. 

On 7 December, The New York Times reported that “All but two of 11 former United States ambassadors to Israel contacted by The New York Times after President Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital thought the plan was wrongheaded, dangerous or deeply flawed.” The mounting criticism of the US from within the country and around the world on this issue brings into question its pronouncements on other issues, including on Sri Lanka. 

The Foreign Ministry is in a bit of a bind. How it evaluates the importance of articulating Sri Lanka’s stand on the issue of Palestine, given the context in which the US announcement was made and the near universal condemnation of it, will dictate the Foreign Ministry’s response. So far, it seems to have decided that it is in Sri Lanka’s national interest to remain silent. For how long can it do so?