The Arab League’s Chairman, Ahmed Abul Gheit, has warned President Trump that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would do a disservice to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as well as ignite violence in the Middle-East. Given the absence of a peace process and given the abundance of violence in the Middle-East, Mr. Aboul-Gheit’s warning does not even pass the laughing test. Far from inflaming the region, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would actually send a sobering message to the Arab world: that the time of historical denial is over, and that Israel is being retributed for being the only country in the region that protects the holy sites of all faiths.
The 1947 UN partition plan had recommended the internationalization of Jerusalem, but this recommendation was never implemented. The Arab League launched a war against the newly declared State of Israel, and the 1949 armistice agreements divided the city between Israel (in the west) and Jordan (in the east). This de facto partition of Jerusalem was never recognized by the international community.
In September 1949, the UN General Assembly voted again in favor of the internationalization of Jerusalem. Both Israel and Jordan ignored that resolution. In December 1950 Israel declared Jerusalem its capital, and Jordan annexed East Jerusalem. No country recognized those annexations (only Pakistan recognized Jordan’s annexation of East Jerusalem). Only in 1952 did the UN General Assembly drop the internationalization of Jerusalem from its agenda. The status quo became tacitly accepted but never legally endorsed.
The Six Day War of June 1967 brought East Jerusalem under Israel’s control. Hitherto ignored, the status of Jerusalem became hotly contested. Israel’s sovereignty over East Jerusalem is challenged, but its sovereignty over West Jerusalem was never recognized. The US government still refuses to register US citizens born in Jerusalem (including in West Jerusalem) as “born in Israel” (a refusal that was upheld by the US Supreme Court in June 2015). Successive US governments have claimed that they will recognize whatever Israel and the Palestinians agree upon. Yet such agreement has so far been beyond reach, and the gap between the parties is likely to remain unbridgeable.
During the negotiations at Camp David (July 2000) and in Taba (January 2001), the Palestinians denied the existence of the Jerusalem Temples and, therefore, any Jewish claim to the Temple Mount. Yet Jerusalem is commonly designated in Islamic sources as Bayit al-Maqdis, which is the Arabic transliteration of the Hebrew Beit Hamikdash (which means “temple”). A travel guide published by the Supreme Muslim Council in 1924 described the Temple Mount as the ancient site of Solomon’s Temple. The Palestinians’ “Temple denial” is therefore a new phenomenon that contradicts Muslim tradition. It flies in the face of historical evidence (such as Flavius Josephus’ The Jewish War) and it is deeply offensive to the Jewish faith.
The Palestinians’ historical denials were and remain one major obstacle to an agreement on the final status of Jerusalem. Disrespect for other faiths leads to the desecration of their holy places. When East Jerusalem was under Jordanian rule (between 1949 and 1967), Jews were denied access to the Western Wall, dozens of synagogues were destroyed (including the landmark “Hurva” synagogue), and the Mount of Olives cemetery was desecrated. In the 1990s, the Palestinian Authority (PA) vandalized Jewish antiquities underneath the Temple Mount as it built two large mosques there.
By contrast, only Israeli sovereignty has guaranteed religious freedom for all and the preservation of the holy places of the three monotheistic religions. The record of Israel must be weighed against that of Jordan and of the PA while discussing the final status of Jerusalem.
President Trump can recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without precluding the final status of the holy places or possible future changes in the city’s boundaries. Russia was the first country to de facto recognize Israel’s sovereignty in West Jerusalem (in April 2017, the Russian foreign ministry declared: “We view West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel”). If Russia can recognize Israel’s sovereignty in West Jerusalem, why can’t the United States?
It is time for the United States to show leadership in the Middle-East. Ending a seventy-year-old anomaly, while rewarding the only country in the region that upholds religious freedom and the rule of law, is a good way to start.