To visit or not to visit Jerusalem, why make that the question?

In April 2010, the prominent Saudi cleric Mohamed al-Arif announced that he was going to make a trip to Jerusalem, then changed his mind under pressure. Two years later, Egypt’s grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, made good on Arif’s unfulfilled desire. Gomaa’s visit came after influential Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi issued a fatwa prohibiting such a visit, equating it with the normalization of relations with Israel. The visit was criticized harshly by nearly all Islamic currents and many secularists who had been staunch opponents of normalizing relations with that state, but defended by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. It is particularly significant because it looks like other Muslim clerics might follow in the mufti’s footsteps.

The mufti’s visit raises questions that have not been considered adequately in the heat of the reaction to it. Is paying a visit to Jerusalem similar to going to Tel Aviv? Would visits by Arab citizens help liberate the Palestinians and halt the Judaization of the holy city, as Palestinian Authority spokesmen assert?

In his own defense, the mufti has argued that visiting Jerusalem does not constitute normalization and that since he went with a high-level Jordanian delegation, he did not need to obtain an Israeli visa. The implication was that getting an Israeli visa is what makes a visit to Jerusalem count as normalization. But how many Arabs are in a position to enter the Palestinian territories without Israeli visa? The answer is simple: not many. Does the mufti mean then that only a select few may travel to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Nativity, as he did, without being tarnished by the charge of abetting normalization?

Why did the mufti opt to be escorted by a Jordanian prince? Isn't he aware that the Hashemite family colluded historically with the Zionist movement, maintained a cozy rapport with Israeli leaders, was at the forefront of normalization with Israel, and never really gave up on the aim of ruling over whatever might be left of Palestine? Egypt under deposed President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority all signed a document at a meeting in Taba in February 1995 that backed ending the Arab boycott of Israel. The mufti’s choice of a royal Jordanian companion and the kudos he received from PA functionaries cast a dark shadow on the meaning of his initiative.

The alleged benefits of Arabs sojourning to Jerusalem are highly doubtful. One need only to recall the 1970s strategy of sumud, or steadfastness, in the West Bank and Gaza, which also aimed at keeping the Palestinians on the land until the opportunity arose to make Israel withdraw from the two regions. The strategy relied on official Arab aid, not on individual spending. The results, however, left much to be desired. Money came under the sway of a few and produced mainly corruption, villas, cars and luxury for some. It was abandoned by the population in favor of active resistance in the first intifada in 1987. Why should this “neo-steadfastness” fare any better?

How many Arabs are likely to be able and willing to go to the holy city? How many people would want to fritter away their holiday moving among checkpoints with Israeli guns pointed at them? Crucially, how can we guarantee that once in the country they won’t slip into Tel Aviv instead of Jerusalem, and spend their shekels (Israeli currency) in the hotels and restaurants, in the boutiques and night clubs of that city? We can be sure that more than a few Arabs have already done so. Wouldn’t these visitors, or at least some of them, begin to see Israel as a European place and make it a future destination, which is what normalization ultimately includes? Wouldn’t they even begin to look down on those poor, backward Palestinians who do not measure up to the technologically-advanced, well-to-do, organized Israelis? One of the worst sectors for public relations in Third World countries is tourism, because the operators can be unreliable and try to take advantage, sometimes in unpleasant ways, of the transient comers.

The unfortunate truth is that the PA is bereft of both the power and resources to regulate or influence where Arab guests stay, or to provide a buffer against Israeli humiliation. It is well-known that Israel controls all the international ports of entry and has erected an extensive web of checkpoints throughout the West Bank, and that President Mahmoud Abbas himself has to secure a travel permit.

Arab governments used to pretend before the revolutions in the region that their own normalization of ties with Israel was good for the Palestinians. King Abdullah of Jordan has asserted this on more than one occasion, and Gamal Mubarak reportedly stated that Egypt’s economic ties with Israel served Palestinian interests, without ever bothering to offer proof (Arab rulers only assert and tell anecdotes). Abbas’ allegations about the value of Arab tourism in Jerusalem fall within this framework.

It must also be kept in mind that the pace and scope of normalization quickened in the aftermath of the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel was without a doubt possible only by Oslo. Likewise, several Arab Gulf states began to relax the rules of their economic boycott of Israel after that agreement. Arab officials from Morocco to Abu Dhabi established overt and clandestine links with Israeli leaders and sometimes opened missions for Israel in their capitals, only to be forced to shut them down formally after one of Israel’s bloody campaigns against the Palestinians or in Lebanon. What kept the Arab boycott of Israel from total collapse was popular sentiment against normalization and the determination of professional and artistic unions and associations not to let it end.

There is danger now that by choosing to focus on bringing Arabs and prominent religious personalities to Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority will subvert this popular posture, which has become even more vocal with the Arab uprisings, thanks to the hated former rulers’ dalliance with their Israeli counterparts. In the West Bank itself, the boycott movement of Israel has been gaining momentum. The PA has never evinced any inclination to promote the budding international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), modeled after the boycott of South Africa to compel it to abandon its apartheid political system.

Why did the PA not take up the suggestion of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last September in his interview with Time Magazine and seek a vote from the UN General Assembly to impose sanctions on Israel, as was also done with South Africa? It is not too late to pursue this course, which would unify rather than divide the Arabs around the Palestinian issue; but the PA prefers engaging Sheikh Qaradawi in a war of words, which can only be injurious to Palestinian interests.

Abbas’ political method, which mocks any form of resistance, has been a failure; it is based on a complete exaggeration of his and the PA’s status in Washington — nil, really — and on categorical positions that can be held only by big powers. On his watch the Palestinian movement has split geographically and functionally, perhaps irrevocably. Israel has not halted its relentless advance in the West Bank. It used to be the case that only Palestinian refugees received assistance from the United Nations; today nearly all Palestinians in the West Bank have become akin to refugees, dependent on Western handouts. Palestinian policy itself is now hostage to the dictates of foreign donors. Finally, by Abbas’ own admission, the PA has been left with no authority to speak of. So, why should anyone have confidence in his proclamations about the value of Arabs going to Jerusalem?

The Palestinian Authority must admit that it and the Arab regimes have done precious little to stop the Judaization of Jerusalem or other parts of the West Bank. Its invitation to Arab citizens and religious leaders to show up in the city and to make Jerusalem the question of the moment marks a desperate move to mask the PA’s failures. The time is overdue for the PA leadership to hand over its banner to others more willing to stand up to Israel’s bulldozers.

Sharif S. Elmusa is a Palestinian poet and professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.

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