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Palestinian Capital in Abu Dis or Ramallah?

  • Mahmoud Abbas entirely rejects the option of Abu Dis or Ramallah serving as the Palestinian capital in an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, even though this possibility was discussed extensively in the past, and the Palestinian Authority began construction on the Palestinian parliamentary building in Abu Dis.
  •  The PA has done much to weaken its status in east Jerusalem, and when Abbas is replaced as PA chairman the names, Abu Dis and Ramallah, may again become relevant to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.
Satellite view of Jerusalem, including Abu Dis and the Temple Mount.

Satellite view of Jerusalem, including Abu Dis and the Temple Mount. (Google Earth)

On January 6, 2018, the Jerusalem committee of the Arab League, headed by Secretary-General Ahmed Abu Gheit, met in Amman to discuss President Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. 

According to Fatah sources, a heated debate broke out between Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki and other Arab foreign ministers. Al-Maliki demanded that the committee adopt three significant resolutions:

  1. An end to the American role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
  2. Rejection of any American plan or peace initiative until President Trump rescinds his declaration on Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
  3. To implement the resolutions of the 1980 Arab summit conference, namely, imposing sanctions on any country that transfers its embassy to Jerusalem.

The Palestinian foreign minister’s demands were rejected entirely.

On January 7, 2017, Al-Araby al-Jadeed reported that Saudi Arabia and Egypt had politely requested of the Palestinian foreign minister not to ask them to adopt any resolution against the United States. In reaction, al-Maliki boycotted the press conference held by Secretary-General Abu Gheit and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi.

A few minutes before the press conference, the third podium, which was intended for al-Maliki, was surprisingly removed. The Palestinian Authority (PA) suffered a severe setback in the Jerusalem committee’s discussions.

The Palestinians do not doubt that President Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was meant to lower their expectations that the new political plan he is formulating will make Jerusalem their capital.

The Saudis and Egyptians Undermine the PA

Trump’s declaration was followed by a report in the New York Times that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had demanded that PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas agree that in the permanent settlement, Abu Dis would be the Palestinian capital. Then, another New York Times report said that at the behest of President Sisi, an Egyptian intelligence officer had instructed several Egyptian TV talk-show hosts to persuade the Egyptian public that the Palestinians should be pressured to accept Ramallah as their capital city.

These reports were strongly denied by Saudi Arabia and Egypt and dismissed as media spin aimed at harming the Saudi crown prince and the Egyptian president. The Palestinian “street” is, however, convinced that the reports are accurate despite the flat-out denials.

A month after Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem, the Palestinian public, Hamas, and the PA leadership are united in their consternation at the weakness of the Arab regimes, which, apart from denunciations and warnings, show no inclination to confront the Trump administration about Jerusalem on the Palestinians’ behalf.

Yet, any attempt at new Palestinian intifada is faltering, and the Palestinian street is starting to hear old/new locations like Abu Dis or Ramallah mentioned as a replacement for east Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state.

Senior Fatah sources say the names Abu Dis and Ramallah are beginning to percolate into Palestinian consciousness.

Ramallah already serves as the de facto PA capital. The Palestinian leadership under Abbas is based in the Muqata complex there, and all the government ministries and other PA institutions operate in the city.

Palestinian Authority government offices in Ramallah

Outside of Palestinian Authority government offices in Ramallah (2013)

The village of Abu Dis is making a return to the headlines. In 1995, it was mentioned as a possible Palestinian capital in understandings reached between Abbas and Yossi Beilin.

Those understandings included a plan to extend the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, set up an over-arching city council, annex Abu Dis to the adjacent village of Azariya, and call them by the Arabic name Al-Quds.

The village of Abu Dis is 1.5 kilometers as the crow flies from the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Two weeks ago, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh claimed he had learned that, in President Trump’s new plan, an overhead bridge would be built from Abu Dis to Al-Aqsa so that Muslims could freely come to pray at the mosques on the Temple Mount.

Abu Dis is the point that connects the northern and the southern West Bank. It is also the eastern entrance to Jerusalem, and in the other direction, it leads down to the Jordan Valley. According to the Oslo agreements, it is part of Area B which is under Israeli security control and Palestinian civilian control.

Already in 1996, construction began in Abu Dis for the parliamentary building of the Palestinian Legislative Council. In other words, the Palestinians did not always oppose the notion of Abu Dis serving at least temporarily as the capital of the Palestinian state. 

One-third of the building was constructed on land within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem.

The PA’s Holdings in Jerusalem

The signing of the Oslo agreements weakened the PLO’s demands concerning east Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state. The accords prohibit the PA from conducting any activity in east Jerusalem.

Some of the Palestinian institutions in east Jerusalem were closed by Israel. The best-known case is that of Orient House (Beit A-Sharq), from which senior Palestinian official Faisal Husseini and his staff operated.

The PA itself has closed institutions and associations operating in east Jerusalem, such as the Palestinian Journalists Associations, the General Workers Union, the staffs of the newspapers Al-Fajr and A-Shav, and the Palestinian weekly Al-Awda.

Other, smaller Palestinian institutions closed themselves down because of a lack of funds. The Shin Bet and the Israel Police have worked to keep members of the Palestinian security mechanisms from operating the city in violation of the Oslo agreements.

At present, there is seemingly no possibility that Abu Dis and Ramallah will play an essential role in a future Israeli-Palestinian settlement. The wave of Palestinian and Arab protest still has not died down completely, and the Palestinians may need incentives to begin to adjust to such a possibility.  It was not for nothing that President Trump said Israel would pay the price for his declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Palestinian Pragmatism Required

The Trump administration has been holding indirect contacts with the PA to soften its opposition to the president’s declaration. The more the Arab countries downplay the issue, the more the Palestinian leadership will realize that it is standing alone on the matter. At the moment there is no Arab conference on Jerusalem on the agenda, and the discussion might only be renewed at the Arab summit conference in Saudi Arabia in March 2018.

In addressing the status of Jerusalem, Trump’s declaration touched upon one of the red lines for Israel and the Palestinians. Yet, Arab leaders did not fall off their chairs. There has been no real change on the ground, and the administration has conveyed messages to the PA that if the Palestinians return to the negotiating table, it will be prepared to discuss the boundaries of east Jerusalem.

At the moment Abbas is taking a harder line on the Jerusalem issue than Yasser Arafat took. Abbas has already passed the age of 82, and the countdown for the end of his political career has begun.

It is possible that his successor will show greater pragmatism and accept a long-term interim agreement, spanning 10 to 15 years, which will skirt the most difficult issues of the permanent settlement. If so, Abu Dis and Ramallah may become relevant once again to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

About Yoni Ben Menachem

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
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