Congress took action on Russia — now it must act on the Middle East
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The current crisis over the Temple Mount, also known as the Noble Sanctuary, is hauntingly reminiscent of September 2000, when opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount and sparked the Second Intifada. This time could be worse. The current crisis threatens Israel’s relations with Jordan and efforts to build a regional coalition to contain Iran, while exacerbating tensions within the Palestinian polity. But, every crisis presents an opportunity.

A bipartisan majority in Congress forced the Trump administration to swallow sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 election. While the Trump administration continues to be distracted by the Russia scandal, it demonstrates that it is content sending inexperienced envoys to the region. Congress has an opportunity to enact meaningful legislation on the future status of Jerusalem that may restart the peace process.

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On July 14, two Arab-Israelis guarding the Haram al-Sharif were killed. This lead to the imposition of new checkpoints in the Old City. This resulted in clashes that saw the introduction of metal detectors and additional security cameras. For some the additional security measures amount to an alteration of the status quo on the Temple Mount established after the Six Day War. Anti-Israel protests have erupted from Jordan and Turkey.

 

The first issue is Jordan. While neither side wants to abrogate the 1994 treaty, the protests in Jordan place unwelcome pressure on King Abdullah, especially as some proclaim the new security measures marginalize the waqf and amount to an alteration of the status quo. This could also spoil chances for a regional peace initiative centered on containing Iran by making it more difficult for states like Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to reach any sort of modus vivendi with Israel.

Abu Mazen’s hands have been tied by protesters who defied his leadership. The Palestinian Authority has frozen all contacts with Israel while several are jockeying for the Fatah leadership. The new Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, called for a “day of rage,” referring to the installation of the metal detectors as a “red line.” These factors alone present potential for tensions to spillover into Gaza.

Congressional deference to the executive branch on foreign affairs has been well established. However, the legislative branch bared its teeth with the Russia sanctions. It has a chance to help restart the moribund peace process.

Congress has perennially passed toothless “sense of Congress” resolutions that have reaffirmed 1995 legislation recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel but done little in the face of presidential waivers. Adjusting a resolution in the Senate would still recognize Jerusalem as the indivisible capital of Israel. But it would recognize Israel as a Jewish state, establish a firm timetable for moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and commit to establish a consulate to the Palestine Liberation Organization and an embassy to Palestine in Jerusalem, once final status talks have completed.

Such legislation would have four consequences. First, it would increase Congress’ influence over foreign policy. Second, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would appeal to the Israeli right. Third, committing America to an indivisible Jerusalem would jettison thorny questions associated with partition. Fourth, it would make the embassy’s relocation a priority for the Trump administration.

This approach will inevitably bring detractors. Some will complain that a unified Jerusalem should remain under Israeli control as part of any deal to create a Palestinian state. Others argue that partition is the only means for peace. And still others, who support a bi-national or one-state solution, will complain that it does not go far enough, believing that only a single state that unifies both parties will put this festering conflict to an end once and for all.

None of these approaches are realistic, nor will they restore the peace process or foster greater congressional input into foreign policy. The current crisis is a critical juncture the legislative branch cannot afford to ignore. Congress should not miss an opportunity to restart the peace process and reassert its authority.

Albert Wolf, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science at the American University of Afghanistan. He is a former post-doctoral fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and wrote his dissertation on the Arab-Israeli dispute. He previously served as a legislative assistant in the U.S. House of Representatives.


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