“It is time to officially recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel…Israel is a sovereign nation with the right like every other sovereign nation to determine its own capital. Acknowledging this as a fact is a necessary condition for achieving peace.” When President Donald Trump made that announcement on December 6th 2017, many thought it would send shockwaves through the Middle East. This recognition was a major campaign promise, appeasing his strong evangelical support base and constituting part of his battle to rip up his predecessor’s legacy. Immediately, criticism began to flood in from governments and international organisations. The BBC claimed he was overturning “decades of official US policy”. Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist terror organisation that controls Gaza, declared that Trump had opened the “gates of hell” and called for a “day of rage”, a term used describe a day of protests and violence against Israeli civilians. However, in academic circles, Trump’s announcement was neither a surprise, nor incongruous with the peace process, and with this article, I hope to explain why.
A Brief History of Jerusalem and Palestine
The first non-biblical reference to Israel was circa 1200 BCE, in an Egyptian inscription called the Merneptah Stele, discovered at Thebes and currently located in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Secular documents and archaeology show that Jews ruled the ‘Land of Israel’ for around 1200 years minus 60 – the period between the destruction of the First Jewish Temple by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and the establishment of the Second Temple, when the Romans permitted the Jews to return.
A chain of conquests followed, first by the Romans in 70 CE who expelled the Jewish population and punitively renamed the area Syria Palaestina, and later by the Arabs in 636 CE, who expelled the Romans. As such there had been Muslim control for around 1200 years minus 60 – the crusade period – until 1920 when the British carved up the Ottoman Empire and established the British Mandate of Palestine. The mathematical symmetry is striking.
The State of Israel was established in 1948 following the adoption of UN Resolution 181 calling for the partition into “Independent Arab and Jewish States”. A day later, the fledgling state was immediately under existential threat when it was attacked by a military coalition of five Arab states – Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The Israelis defeated the invasion, but Jordan occupied large swathes of land (today known as the West Bank), including East Jerusalem.
At this point, Israel established its capital in western Jerusalem and this is where the seat of government, the judiciary and all subsequent state visits have been located ever since. These borders, although established in the 1949 armistice agreement, are referred to the as the “1967 borders” as this remained the status quo until the Six Day War in 1967 when Egypt, Jordan and Syria unsuccessfully repeated their attempt to wipe the Jewish state off the map. During the inter-war period, control of the ‘Old city’ – located in the East of the modern-day city – lay with Jordan, who blocked Christian and Jewish worship at their ancient religious sites. After 1967, Israel gained control of the Eastern part of the city, re-establishing freedom of religious practice for all and immediately handing over control of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif complex (including al-Aqsa Mosque) to a Jordanian custodian organisation called the Waqf, who have banned Jewish prayer at the site (the holiest in the Judaism) ever since.
The Peace Process
The first phase of the Oslo peace process consisted of letters of mutual recognition and the renouncement of terrorism by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, led by Yasser Arafat, the Egyptian founding member of Fatah. (Fatah was a paramilitary organisation in the 1950s seeking the disestablishment of Israel but has now morphed into the leading political party in the West Bank, led by Mahmoud Abbas.) During this time the five permanent status issues, of which Jerusalem is one, were identified and left to be negotiated later. The fact that these five issues have yet to be settled in bilateral negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians is the root cause of the diplomatic furore surrounding Trump’s announcement. However, the Arab response stems from something far deeper-rooted.
The Palestinians have a legitimate and credible claim to statehood under the principle of self-determination. Rashid Khalidi, Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, traces Palestinian nationalism back to the 1930s but wrote that “it is a serious mistake to suggest that Palestinian identity emerged mainly as a response to Zionism”. In his book on the conflict, James Gelvin states that “The fact that Palestinian nationalism developed later than Zionism and indeed in response to it does not in any way diminish the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism or make it less valid than Zionism”.
However, the Palestinian leadership have been leading their people down the cul-de-sac of rejectionism since the early days of their national movement. Educational documents in UNWRA schools fail to make any mention of Jewish history in Jerusalem. Facebook pages run by the Palestinian Authority regularly deny any historical Jewish presence. Hamas’ founding charter contains calls for extermination of the Jews. Under these conditions, it is unsurprising that Trump’s announcement has been met with violent protests. Even in London, protesters chanted “Khaybar Khaybar, ya yahud, Jaish Muhammad, sa yahud”, which translates to “Jews, remember Khaybar the army of Muhammad is returning”, a reference to the massacre of Jews in Khaybar in 628 CE.
In 1949, Israel made Jerusalem its capital. This status quo has been unchanged ever since. While the final status of East Jerusalem must be finalised in bilateral negotiations, the myth that Israel choosing to have its capital in Jerusalem is somehow controversial is ahistorical and a denial of the sovereign right of a democratic state. Trump’s statement should not diminish Palestinian national ambition. On the contrary, he stressed the importance of maintaining the status quo at Muslim holy sites. I am no Donald Trump fan, but we must not allow our opinion of him, or fear of violence from extremists, to cloud our judgement of what is merely recognition of something historians, academics and politicians have known for decades.