BRICS Without East Jerusalem
By Prof. P. R. Kumaraswamy
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 607, October 8, 2017
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The 43-page Xiamen Declaration issued at the end of the
ninth BRICS summit in early September marks an interesting shift concerning
Israel. In paragraph 42, it makes the usual references to “relevant” UN
resolutions, the Madrid Principles, the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, and
“previous agreements” and calls for “a just, lasting and comprehensive
solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Declaration calls for the
creation of “an independent, viable, territorially contiguous Palestinian
State living side by side in peace and security with Israel” – but contains
no reference whatsoever to East Jerusalem.
The BRICS organization, which is comprised of Brazil, Russia, India, China,
and South Africa, represents over 40% of the global population, and its
collective economy accounts for over one-fifth of global GDP. Two of the
countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council and the other
three are aspiring to be. BRICS is thus a major world power bloc.
Initially, the BRICS countries were concerned solely with developmental
issues and did not address the Middle East at all, let alone the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Things began to change when South Africa
joined as a full member at the Sanya Summit in April 2011. Stating that they
“are deeply concerned with the turbulence in the Middle East,” the leaders
hoped for “peace, stability, prosperity and progress.” Popular protests in
the Arab world were more ominous than the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.
The Palestine question reared its head in March 2012 when the BRICS leaders
met in New Delhi for their fourth summit. They urged both sides “to take
constructive measures, rebuild mutual trust and create right conditions for
restarting negotiations, while avoiding unilateral steps.”
This moderate tone changed dramatically in March 2013 when South Africa
hosted the summit. The Durban Declaration made explicit reference for the
first time to East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state.
In addition to the usual, it called among other things for a two-state
solution including the creation of “a contiguous and economically viable
Palestinian state, existing side by side in peace with Israel, within
internationally recognized borders, based on those existing on 4 June 1967,
with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
Since its return to the international arena, post-apartheid South Africa has
been at the forefront of the international campaign against Israel and has
pushed or facilitated a variety of anti-Israeli statements, actions, and
resolutions. Just days before the September 11 attacks, Durban hosted the UN
conference against racism that singled out Israel for vilification. Thus, as
BRICS host, Pretoria was able to flag its position on East Jerusalem, and
the other BRICS leaders signed up. (A reference to East Jerusalem also
appeared in early 2010 when South Africa was part of the three-member IBSA
group, with Brazil and India the other two members.)
Members of the BRICS countries have indeed been more sympathetic towards the
Palestinians than Israel. China and India did not normalize relations with
Israel until January 1992, and the erstwhile USSR did not have diplomatic
relations with Israel between June 1967 and October 1991. Only Brazil has
had formal ties with it since the late 1940s. Hence, others joined Pretoria’s
chorus on East Jerusalem.
The political status of Jerusalem has been controversial ever since the UN
partition plan of 1947, which suggested it be an international city. The
global community does not recognize West Jerusalem, which has been part of
Israel since May 1948, as the country’s capital. Most countries, including
the US, have their embassies in Tel Aviv.
At the same time, the city remains the de facto capital of Israel and is
home to all the symbols of the state and its sovereignty such as the prime
minister’s residence, the Knesset (the parliament), and the Supreme Court.
The presentation of credentials by foreign ambassadors accredited to Israel,
including Arab-Muslim ambassadors such as those from Egypt, Jordan, and
Turkey, takes place in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv.
Moreover, there are no UN resolutions or plans declaring the city the
capital of the Palestinian state. The Oslo and other bilateral agreements
merely indicate that the final political status of the city will have to be
resolved through negotiations and accommodation.
The core of the Jerusalem issue lies in the Old City, which houses sites
holy to all three Abrahamic faiths. The city is not a Berlin, to be divided
or partitioned, but can only be shared through accommodation and compromise.
Outside intervention in favor of one party, in this case the Palestinians,
only makes the problem more intractable.
The Israeli government has to take its share of responsibility for the East
Jerusalem controversy. For example, until the UNESCO resolution of April
2016, which questioned Jewish links to Jerusalem, the Netanyahu government
was indifferent to international shifts. Even countries that were friendly
towards the Jewish state voted with the Arab-Islamic countries. Israel’s
post-resolution anger could not hide its diplomatic sloppiness.
Meanwhile, over the past decade, East Jerusalem became integral to India’s
engagements with the Middle East and figured in major policy statements and
bilateral declarations. The reference to Jerusalem was maintained even after
the change of government in India when the rightwing Hindu nationalist
BJP-government replaced the Congress Party, which has been sympathetic
towards the Palestinians since the early 1920s.
Ever since his first BRICS summit in Fortaleza in July 2014, Indian Prime
Minister Narendra Modi has included East Jerusalem. As late as April of this
year, East Jerusalem figured in the statement of Middle East envoys of BRICS
countries hosted by India. The same formulation could be seen in Delhi’s
engagements with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and others.
But a major shift occurred in May of this year, shortly before Modi’s July
visit to Israel. With Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas standing
by his side, Modi called for “a sovereign, independent, united and viable
Palestine, co-existing peacefully with Israel.” For the first time in nearly
a decade, there was no reference to East Jerusalem.
Will this new trend continue? The answer lies in the vagaries of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in Israeli diplomatic finesse.
Professor P. R. Kumaraswamy teaches contemporary Middle East at Jawaharlal
Nehru University, New Delhi and is the author of India’s Israel Policy
(Columbia University Press, 2010).
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the
Greg Rosshandler Family