The 'Jerusalem Committee' Reconsidered

Jan 15, 2014 | Updated Mar 17, 2014

The "Al-Quds Committee" (Jerusalem Committee) is an offshoot of the Organization of the Islamic Conference dating back to 1975. Chaired originally by Morocco's late monarch, Hassan II, and now led by his son, Mohammed VI, its member states -- all Muslim-majority countries -- cover the Arab world, sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and the Far East. The stated purpose of the group is to support Muslim claims to Jerusalem and the upkeep of its Islamic holy places, together with the welfare of the Palestinian population and their aspirations to a state with Jerusalem as its capital. The Committee will hold its annual gathering in the Moroccan capital Rabat this week.

In the West, policymakers traditionally have not viewed such multi-government bodies in the region to be particularly helpful: Their public statements are often hijacked by the most strident members, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran. The so-called "rejectionist camp" among Muslim countries blocks calls for a negotiated settlement between Palestinians and Israelis based on a two-state solution, and typically calls for the destruction of the "Zionist entity." But this year, there are grounds for hope that the Al-Quds Committee will make a meaningful contribution to peace efforts in the Holy Land.

To begin with, despite the constraints long imposed on the Committee by its most belligerent members, King Mohammed VI has consistently tried to work through the group to foster the circumstances necessary to enable the parties to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to achieve a peace accord. These measures include philanthropic projects to build hospitals and schools for the Palestinians and offers to oversee the maintenance of Muslim holy sites during periods of heightened acrimony. The monarchy is trusted by both parties to play this role: Not only have successive kings been outspoken in support of the Palestinians' legitimate claims; they also maintain a historic bond of trust with the global Jewish community, from the principled stand against Nazism taken by the late King Muhammad V in the 1940s, to quiet political and security cooperation with the Jewish state ever since.

A rare glimpse of how the present king has attempted to use the Al-Quds Committee to constructive ends was provided by U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2010: The monarch is described by American diplomats as trying to work to Israelis' and Palestinians' mutual satisfaction on the restoration of one of the Old City's historic gates, then in need of repair. The cables also report that the king explicitly referred to the two-state solution as an end goal he would like the Committee to serve.

There are indications that the forthcoming gathering in Rabat will begin to make public what the king has long sought to do in private. In addition to the traditional presence of Islamic states at the conference, the group's hosts have arranged for important non-Islamic bodies with moral or political clout to participate as observers, and perhaps to add their own voices to the discussion as well. These include the Vatican, representatives of the European Union, President Obama's special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and United Nations Security Council member states. The "internationalization" of the conference introduces mainstream positions on potential means for a resolution -- such as the possibility of establishing Jerusalem as a shared capital for a Palestinian and an Israeli state with international sovereignty over the holy places, with the leaders of each faith responsible for the sites most holy to them. The international presence at the conference can in effect bolster the standing of the moderate camp among the Al-Quds Committee's longstanding members and help isolate extremist voices. Finally, it creates a framework for Western parties to build on the conference, by asking moderate members to put their words into action and publicly prompt movement in the long-stalled peace efforts. In Israel and Palestine, US Secretary of State John Kerry's campaign to foster a settlement is nearing its home stretch, with an urgent need for greater regional support. This conference, if effectively steered and supported, can help to provide that support.

The meeting may also prove significant as far as the "rejectionist camp" is concerned. Amid direct high-level negotiations between the United States and Iran over the latter country's nuclear program, the eyes of the world are on Iran. It faces enormous pressure to show flexibility on issues where its position has been intractable since the 1979 Islamic revolution. A comprehensive agreement between Iran and the United States will necessarily entail Iranian concessions on Hezbollah and Hamas, the militant proxy groups it has long used to attack the Jewish state. It would also require serious rhetorical concessions, whereby Tehran signals a retreat from its stated objective to destroy Israel. These considerations mean that Iran will be closely watched at the Al-Quds Committee conference this week. Will it maintain its obstructionist role or will it abstain from blocking conciliatory moves? Will the language of its pronouncements remain the same or will it demonstrate some positive evolution? The conference presents a test to Iran -- and it is in the regime's interest to achieve a passing grade.

During his White House meeting with President Obama late last year, King Mohammed VI and the American leader saw eye to eye on the importance of achieving a permanent settlement to the conflict over Jerusalem. There are high-level hopes that this week's meeting in Rabat will prove to be one of the first fruits of that understanding.