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In the wake of President Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that extends formal US recognition to the city as the capital of Israel, politicians across the Muslim world have rushed, mostly with feigned outrage, to burnish their credentials as defenders of the faith and champions of Palestine.

Demagoguery and diplomacy

For UMNO and PAS, Trump’s decision couldn’t have come at a better time.

Hard-pressed at home, it allowed them to divert attention from pressing domestic issues and latch on to an issue that always sits well with Muslim voters. After all, nothing fires up the masses more than perceived threats to the faith, especially if it involves our favourite bogeyman – the Jews. It is also the reason why the Palestinian issue is often presented and promoted as a religious issue rather than a political and humanitarian one which is how the rest of the world sees it.

Our Defence Minister, in what will long be remembered as one of the most inane statements ever made, suggested that Malaysia’s armed forces are “readily prepared to receive any order over Jerusalem.” Not to be outdone, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak responded with an equally bizarre statement of his own: “Even if it means cutting me up into pieces, leaving behind only one piece of ‘meat’, we will not budge.” Invoking the name of the great Islamic hero Salahuddin, who once liberated Jerusalem from the crusaders, Najib vowed to be steadfast in his defense of the Palestinian cause.

Opposition politicians for their part could not resist the temptation to score cheap points at UMNO’s expense. Excoriating Najib for his allegedly “close” friendship with Trump, they gormlessly demanded everything from cutting off relations with the US to rescinding an earlier decision to purchase Boeing aircraft from the US in retaliation.

Academics, preachers and others also felt obliged to join the fray. One academic bemoaned that “one of the three holiest sites of Islam [had been] confiscated by Israel,” as if the US decision had in any way changed the status of Al-Aqsa mosque.

Demagoguery and demonstrations, however, are no substitute for sound policy and effective diplomacy. And that’s what’s been missing for much of the past few decades. 

Time no friend of Palestine

The Palestinian issue has been with us for more than half a century. During that time, OIC members have attended dozens of conferences, delivered thousands of speeches, issued untold numbers of communiqués, and pledged their undying support for the Palestinian cause ad nauseam without achieving anything of particular significance. Worse still, they didn’t even seem to care about their exiguous results; it was all just a political game to them.

The truth, ugly as it may be, is that Arab and Muslim leaders have always had conflicting agendas that have kept them from offering the Palestinians the kind of united support that alone could perhaps have made a difference in negotiations with Israel. They have repeatedly and cynically exploited the issue for their own ends while carefully paying lip service to what has been called one of the great Arab/Muslim causes. To see them now pretending to be shocked and concerned by Trump’s move is simply nauseating.

While Muslim leaders played their games, the situation in Palestine progressively worsened. More land has been lost to new Israeli settlements; their rights have eroded yet further; their economic situation has deteriorated and their future grows more dim with each passing year. They are even being written out of their own history. They are damned as terrorists if they take up arms and damned to oblivion if they don’t. Simply put, they are in a no-win situation whichever way you look at it.

And it’s about to get a lot worse, at least from the point of view of the Palestinian people.

The growing contest for supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran is fundamentally altering political alignments in the region. A shared strategic concern over Iran, for example, is driving Saudi Arabia (and its Gulf allies) and Israel closer together. A senior Saudi prince was even quoted as saying that in the interest of developing security ties with Israel, he would side with Israel in case of a Palestinian uprising and that he would attempt to break any Arab initiatives set to condemn the Jewish nation.

Even the formal OIC position on contacts with Israel is fracturing. Barely hours after Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, a 23-member delegation from Bahrain landed in Jerusalem on a goodwill visit. In fact, quiet diplomatic and security exchanges between Arab states and Israel have been going on for quite some time now with the active encouragement of the US. Speculation persists that an informal alliance between the Saudis and the Israelis is already taking shape.

Of course, the Saudis have publicly stated that any formal deal with Israel is contingent upon a settlement of the Palestinian issue. However, there are genuine concerns that in the rush to forge a security relationship with Israel, the interests of the Palestinians would be compromised.

Time and circumstance are, therefore, no friend of the Palestinians nor of their struggle for a viable and independent state.

Wake-up call

Trump’s decision, as unwelcome as it may be, together with the changing geopolitical landscape, might just be the wake-up call that the Palestinians themselves as well as the Islamic world needs to prod them into facing political reality.

Like it or not, Israel, pretty much in its present shape, is here to stay with Jerusalem as its capital. There is simply no going back to the pre-1947 or even pre-1967 borders that Muslim leaders, including Najib, routinely insist upon. The sad fact is that the battle has long been over even though Islamic nations, and much of the rest of the world, have been unwilling to accept the outcome, at least not publicly.

It is, of course, unjust and unfair to the Palestinians. Few people have paid such a high price for statehood but history has moved on and to the victor has gone the spoils.

A better outcome might have been possible once but not any more; too many opportunities were missed; too many mistakes were made; too many leaders preferred to indulge in cheap rhetoric instead of making hard choices.

Making the best of a bad situation

The best that the Palestinians can now hope for is a neutered Palestinian state that incorporates Gaza and the West Bank together with a few reclaimed settlements perhaps, and some sort of nominal presence in Jerusalem. The alternative is another 50 years or more of occupation, oppression and misery with little or no chance that things will get any better.

Given even half a chance, the Palestinian people, once among the most educated and professional in the Middle East, might just be able to spring back from the long years of adversity and build a stable and prosperous nation of their own. It is a bitter pill to swallow for sure but it might be the only hope they now have.

For Israel, a negotiated settlement will finally bring them the international recognition they have long sought but do not fully deserve. It offers, as well, the prospect of ending the enduring hostility of their neighbours and enhanced security. It ought to be tempting enough to persuade them to accept at least some compromise.

Muslim nations, for their part, can dream about the glory days of Salahuddin or seize the moment to unite behind a new effort at compromise before even more of Palestine is irrevocably lost. It’s time to get real. They owe that much at least to the Palestinian people who have suffered so much for so long.

Dennis Ignatius | 30th December 2017