Fulfilling a solemn presidential campaign promise, Donald Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and instructed the State Department to begin preparations to move the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His historic decision, which touched off anti-American and anti-Israel demonstrations in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and a host of Muslim countries, was a ringing affirmation of reality, a stunning rejection of previous U.S. policy and a stinging rebuke to Palestinian national aspirations.
“Today we finally acknowledge the obvious,” he declared in a speech in the White House on December 6.
In 1990, the U.S. Senate acknowledged Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Five years later, the U.S. Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which authorizes the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem. While three American presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — spoke approvingly of transferring the embassy to Jerusalem, they signed national security waivers every six months to keep it in Tel Aviv.
Breaking the mould, Trump, in March 2016, publicly pledged to transfer the embassy to Jerusalem, “the eternal capital of the Jewish people.” Recalling his pledge, Trump boasted, “While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I’m delivering.”
In practice, the “delivery” will take several years.
Having directed the U.S. State Department to implement his “new approach” to Jerusalem, it now falls on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to complete the process. Architects, engineers and planners will have to be hired, as Trump noted. But the most important consideration will be geographic. Where will the new embassy be built?
It’s a freighted issue that goes got the heart of the matter.
Trump, in his relatively brief remarks, made no distinction between West and East Jerusalem. Nor did he indicate where the United States will build its new embassy. Trump thus handed Israel a resounding diplomatic victory and humiliated the Palestinians.
Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital marks the third time in the last month that he has ruffled Palestinian feathers. On Nov. 17, the Trump administration threatened to close the PLO’s mission in Washington. Two weeks later, the House of Representatives approved the Taylor Force Act to defund the Palestinian Authority due to its financial support of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and their families.
For Israel and the Palestinians alike, Jerusalem is a special city, having been a source of contention for decades.
Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital since its declaration of statehood, and all the ministries of government are located there. More to the point, Jerusalem has been woven into the fabric of Jewish history and Judaism for the past 3,000 years. To the Palestinians, Jerusalem is a holy city, the site of the Temple Mount, one of the holiest sites in Islam.
During the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, Israel captured the western half of the city. Israel, however, lost the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall in East Jerusalem, which was seized by the Arab Legion of Jordan. From that point forward, Jerusalem was a divided city, demarcated by the Mandelbaum Gate, and Jews were forbidden to enter the eastern sector.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, 16 countries, running the gamut from Holland, Ivory Coast, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and El Salvador, placed their embassies in western Jerusalem. But eventually, they relocated them to Tel Aviv.
Israel, having conquered East Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War, proceeded to annex it. In 1980, the Knesset proclaimed Jerusalem as its undivided and indivisible capital. The fait accompli was universally rejected on the grounds that the status of Jerusalem should be determined not by conquest but by negotiations. This was the position held by the United States until a few days ago. It is still the official policy of all other nations.
For the past 50 years, Israel has established “facts on the ground” in eastern Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital. Israel has constructed a string of new neighbourhoods there ranging from French Hill and Ramat Eshkol to Har Homa and Gilo.
Israel has also erected a maze of settlements in the West Bank very close to Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries. These outposts, from Maale Adumim to Givat Ze’ev, may yet be incorporated into Jerusalem to ensure that Jews continue to form a majority of its population. According to the latest statistics, two-thirds of Jerusalem’s residents are Jewish. In recent years, however, secular Jews have been leaving Jerusalem, which is heavily populated by ultra-Orthodox Jews.
If Trump builds the new U.S. embassy in western Jerusalem, the outcry probably will be minimal. Even some Palestinians may grudgingly accept this outcome. After all, virtually every serious discussion of a two-state solution starts with the assumption that western Jerusalem will be Israel’s capital, while eastern Jerusalem will be the capital of Palestine.
Hewing to this pragmatic principle, Russia officially recognized western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last April. It would not be surprising if more countries follow Moscow’s example.
But herein lies an immense problem.
Israel’s current right-wing government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, categorically rejects the partitioning of Jerusalem into two capital cities. The Israeli opposition leader, Avi Gabbay, agrees with him. Last week, he said that a “united” Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty is more important than achieving a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
If, on the other hand, Trump chooses to build the American embassy in East Jerusalem, the reaction would be predictable. The Palestinians would never accept such a decision, which might well set off a third Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Nor would U.S. Arab allies like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia be pleased.
Trump, in his speech, carefully avoided this incendiary issue.
“We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders,” he said. “Those questions are up to the parties involved.”
In announcing his decision on Jerusalem, Trump claimed he was acting in the “best interests” of the United States and “the pursuit of peace.”
As he put it, “In making these announcements, I also want to make one point very clear. This decision is not intended in any way to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement. We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians.”
Tillerson, who reportedly opposed Trump’s upending of U.S. policy, seconded him: “The president’s very committed to the Middle East peace process.” In a reference to Trump’s principal Middle East envoys, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, he added, “They have done the hard work. We continue to believe there is a good opportunity to achieve peace.”
Trump, who has spoken of resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute by means of the “ultimate deal,” has yet to release his plan. But as he knows, every single peace initiative dealing with the Palestinian question since the Six Day War, from the Jarring mission to the Oslo process, has ultimately failed.
And now that Trump has taken it upon himself to address the thorny Jerusalem issue unilaterally, he may well have undermined his yet-to-be-unveiled peace plan.
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, denounced Trump’s unilateralism. Claim ing that the United States has disqualified itself as a honest broker, he said he would not meet U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence when he visits Jerusalem later this month. Echoing his view, the senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the PA will not discuss the prospect of resuming peace negotiations with Israel unless Trump rescinds his decision on Jerusalem.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO’s executive committee, put it all into perspective. As she wrote, “This decision will be interpreted by Palestinians, Arabs and the rest of the world as a major provocation. It will cause irreparable harm to Mr. Trump’s own plans to make peace in the Middle East, and to any future administration’s efforts, as well.”
In essence, Trump appears to have prejudged the outcome of future talks on Jerusalem. Worse still, he has implicitly emboldened Netanyahu to carry on as usual. Netanyahu and his ministers pay only lip service to a two-state solution and continue to expand existing Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Dedicated to conflict management rather than conflict resolution, they are foreclosing the possibility of forging a peace agreement with the mainstream Palestinian national movement, headed by Abbas and his lieutenants.
In recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump bowed to existing realities. But he left too many key questions open, unanswered and dangling in the wind.