What will this lead to?
Will American recognition of Jerusalem Israeli capital have far-reaching consequences for the collective fate of the Middle East and the world? Asks Pathikrit Payne
Last week, US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and Trump's subsequent orders to state department to start the process of shifting the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, marks the end of seven decades of status-quo that successive US Administration had maintained over the contentious issue of Jerusalem and its disputed ownership. Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the history related to the Jerusalem dispute and its connection with all the Abrahamic religions, this article would focus on what kind of implication this decision will have on the already fragile, conflict-ridden environment of the Middle East and its possible impact elsewhere.
Proverbial bedfellows: The Middle East & conflict
For several centuries now and especially since the first half of 20th century, the Middle East and peace have found it nearly impossible to coexist. Even when there have been brief periods of peace, it has been intermitted by multiple conflicts in several parts of not just Middle East but also in its contiguous North African region. Both the World Wars have had a profound impact on this region. In fact, the Middle East had been a key theatre in both the World Wars. Mayhem of World War I was followed by Turkish War of Independence and Franco-Syrian War among many. Later, the end of World War II and the formation of Israel led to a series of Arab-Israeli conflicts followed by eight-year long Iraq-Iran war and then the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that led to Gulf War.
Post 9/11, terror attack on the US resulted in US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. The impact of that still resonates across the spectrum of the Middle East because of the rise of Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), resurgence of sectarian conflicts, and series of terror attacks that ripped apart the fabric of many countries including Iraq. The Israel Lebanon face off in 2006 added further fuel to the fire.
From 2010 onward, Arab Spring, often alleged to have been orchestrated by certain vested interests to trigger further mayhem in the Middle East, resulted in civil war kind of situation spreading like an epidemic from one state to another, often ravaging them from inside. The tumultuous environment created the perfect milieu for the spawning of ISIS and the mayhem was ably complemented by an insane bloodbath. From Northern Iraq to Syria, ISIS mauled anything that came on its path while its tentacles spread across the state after state in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, South and South East Asia. In other words, what often starts in the Middle East does not always end there.
The prelude to the recognition of Jerusalem
It is not that the Middle East was waiting to welcome any harbinger of peace which has been spoilt by the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. However, what it does is to give further impetus for more conflicts. Even though ISIS has been considerably weakened, it continues to spread havoc. The idea is not yet dead. There is a profound possibility of them using this emotive issue to attract more youth towards them and in the name of revenge, instigate more terror attacks, often through lone wolves, across Europe and elsewhere.
Additionally, after the Syrian theatre, Yemen has been for more than a year the new ring for Saudis and Iranians to sort out their never-ending sectarian face-offs at the cost of innocent Yemenis. Both Iran and Saudis continue to blame each other for unwarranted interference. The stage was also being set for taking forward the antagonism to Lebanon. Saudis have for long accused Iran of supporting Assad regime in Syria as also aiding the Houthi rebels in Yemen. In both places, Saudi backed forces have been on the back foot. The detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri by Saudis made Lebanon's Iran backed Hezbollah to term it as a declaration of war on Lebanon. Now the Jerusalem issue may be used by Iran and Hezbollah to blame Saudis more for being soft on Israel and thus would be the tipping point for not just more violence in the Middle East but the start of a new era of sectarian rivalry.
The Saudi reaction to Jerusalem issue: Mute for obvious reasons
The predicament for the incumbent Saudi regime is that given the fragile condition of the ruling dispensation, it would be difficult for Prince Salman led Saudi Arabia to be able to do anything drastic or provocative beyond the cursory token words of condemnation. The ascent of Crown Prince Salman followed by a series of arrests of rival princes, officials and business barons through a sort of 'soft coup' or 'purge' may have put him in charge of affairs but needs enormous American support to remain there as an acceptable face and to keep internal enemies at bay.
Further, his plans to diversify the Saudi economy and gradually steer it away from its complete dependence on oil even while attempting to keep the subsidy addicted populace happy through tumultuous times of low oil price, declining forex reserves and an expensive as well as clueless, never-ending war in Yemen, need support from US to sustain. This year Saudis also signed a $110 billion defence deal with Trump Administration, a further vindication of the extent cooperation (or dependence) the Saudis have with US Administration. However, even though the Saudi Administration may stay away from any kind of provocative act for the time being, the same cannot be said about the innumerable Wahhabi followers both inside Saudi Arab and beyond.
Jerusalem: An issue that galvanises Muslims across the world
There is no denying that Jerusalem is as much an emotive issue for the Muslims across the world as it is for the Jews. Even for many who have stopped being worried much about the issues of Israel and Palestine, news surrounding Jerusalem act as a catalyst to galvanise them too. Thus while most (if not all) Muslim majority states may not attempt to trigger anything big for fear of dilapidating their relation with the US, the possibility of certain rogue elements attempting the same cannot be ruled out. Till now there have only been sporadic clashes between Palestinians and the Israel security forces. However, if the clashes lead to rise in casualties, it may lead to more chain reactions.
The Hamas and Hezbollah factor
It would be foolhardy to presume that both Hamas and Hezbollah would sit idle for long. Even though Israel recently destroyed a Hamas tunnel, tensions remain palpable. While it is still too early to predict that there would be a repeat of either the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict of 2006 or the Israeli-Hamas conflict of 2014, neither can be ruled out. Hezbollah's supreme leader Hassan Nasrallah has already given out calls for a Palestinian uprising and a field strategy with allies against Israel. The possibility of any conflict leading to thousands of youth from North Africa and from other parts of Asian as also Europe rushing in to join the war against Israel cannot be ruled out. There is also a profound possibility of Iran-backed Hezbollah would attempt to pit Saudis and Israelis on the same side and thus gain upper hand in the so-called resistance against Israel. What can also not be ruled out are pre-emptive strikes by Israel on Hezbollah and others.
Reaction in Malaysia and Turkey: Does that indicate something?
As stated earlier, the impact of issues that erupt from the Middle East rarely remains restricted to the Middle East only, the statement of Malaysian Defence Minister on the issue of Jerusalem being recognised as Capital of Israel, vindicate the same. Defence Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein stated recently that his country's armed forces are prepared of any eventuality and termed the American decision as a slap on the face of the entire Muslim world. Likewise, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called for a meeting of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to 'coordinate a Muslim reaction' to the US declaration on Jerusalem and has termed Jerusalem decision as a 'red line for Muslims'.
Precursor to another global conflict?
When Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated June 28, 1914, not many had anticipated that it would eventually lead to the start of World War I followed by World War II and more than three decades of intense turmoil would end with the death of Adolf Hitler. Would the declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital trigger something on that line or would it just pass off as a flash in the pan through the sand dunes of time? Would the common enemy of Iran bring Israel and Saudis even closer in case of an all-out Hezbollah led attack? Would it lead to something bigger? Only time can give the answer to these questions. Meanwhile, the Middle East and conflict would continue to remain proverbial bedfellows with peace having little scope to sneak in and make a mark.
(Views expressed are strictly personal.)