World Politics & Affairs

Trump on Jerusalem: What Happened, and Why It Matters

When Israel was founded, in 1948, Jerusalem was intended to be an international city. Yet, thanks to an invasion by five of the new country’s neighbors, by the time the dust settled, Jerusalem was a divided city. The eastern portion had come under Jordanian control, and the western portion was firmly in Israeli hands. Israel’s Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared that he would not permit the “forced separation of Jerusalem” and that it was Israel’s “Eternal” capital. Meanwhile, East Jerusalem became the “alternative capital of the Hashemite Kingdom” (Jordan). However, after another war and six days later, East Jerusalem came under Israeli control. Israel wasted no time integrating the two halves of the city. The municipal boundaries of Jerusalem were extended to the eastern sector, which was also placed under Israeli law and administration. In addition, freedom of religion was established, reversing the Islamization policies put in place by Jordan.
Israeli soldiers in the Old City of Jerusalem after the Six-Day War
Muslim, Christian, and Jewish holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem

However, all was not as it seemed. Not a single country recognized Israel’s annexation, or any part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Most countries maintained the idea that Jerusalem should be treated as an international city, regardless of the reality on the ground. In addition, East Jerusalem’s Arab residents, although having found themselves in Israel after the Six-Day War, were not given citizenship automatically. Instead, they are given Israeli permanent residence and an option to apply for citizenship. However, few do, since it is seen as a denial of their Palestinian identity. In addition, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), established in 1964 to replace Israel with a Palestinian state, claimed Jerusalem (and continues to claim the eastern portion) as the capital of Palestine.

Muslim, Christian, and Jewish holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem

This tenuous political situation is further complicated by the status of Jerusalem (especially the Old City, located in the east) as a holy city in Judaism (the majority religion in Israel), Islam (the majority religion in the Palestinian territories) and Christianity. For religious Jews, Jerusalem is at the center of their religion. In ancient times, Judaism was centered in one of the two temples (Beit HaMikdash, “the house of holiness”) on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Jewish texts and blessings contain numerous references to Jerusalem, and “next year in [a rebuilt] Jerusalem” has been repeated as a mantra for some two thousand years. Meanwhile, Jerusalem (Al-Quds, “the Holy”) is the third holiest city in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven from Jerusalem, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque was built on the Temple Mount soon after his death. Finally, many of the key events in the life of Jesus occurred in Jerusalem, making it an important city for Christians as well.

Although the Jerusalem Law of 1980 further cemented the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, yet again, it remained unrecognized. In order to make a point, Israeli funds were allocated to Jerusalem’s development, and the Law prohibited the transfer of Jerusalem’s sovereignty to any other country. However, the Jerusalem Embassy Act, passed by the US Congress in 1995, was a game changer. It stipulated that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and move its embassy there (from Tel Aviv, where the US, along with other countries, maintain an embassy to Israel, despite Tel Aviv not being Israel’s capital). It also stipulated that the President would be permitted to sign a waiver every six months, delaying the implementation of the Act. Since then, four presidents dutifully reissued this waiver twice a year, on grounds of national security concerns.

During his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump repeatedly promisedto move the American embassy to Jerusalem. This in itself was not particularly unusual, given the fact that most presidential candidates have made similar statements. However, on December 6th, now-President Trump formally recognized Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and stipulated that the embassy was to be moved. Israeli reactions, were, for the most part, positive. Likud (the ruling right-wing party) and Labor (left-wing, the largest opposition party), and most other Israeli political parties strongly supported the proclamation. However, Meretz, a far-left party, condemned italong withthe Arab “Joint List”. Despite the fanfare, President Trump also signed the waiver immediately afterwards, delaying the embassy move for at least another six months. In addition, the statement issued did not specify what the borders of Jerusalem are, meaning that they could be changed as a result of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. The State Department clarified this, and pointed out that even if everything was to occur on schedule, the embassy move will take at least two years.

Regardless, the world reacted with disapproval when the decision was announced. The European Union reaffirmed the position of its member states, that the status of Jerusalem will be settled through negotiations. China, too, issued a similar statement, however, stipulated that it calls for East Jerusalem to be the Palestinian capital. Interestingly enough, Russia already unelaborately recognized West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and, as such, simply expressed “concern” over the announcement. Arab and Muslim states, however, did not hold back their rage. The King of Saudi Arabia called the announcement “a dangerous step of relocation or recognition of Al-Quds as the capital of Israel would constitute a flagrant provocation of Muslims, all over the world.” Turkey’s Erdoğan called it a “red line” for Muslims. Iran also lashed out at Israel and the US, while recognizing Jerusalem as the “capital of Palestine”. Other Arab and Muslim countries followed suit, along with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Even more, Malaysia threatened to declare war on Israel and send soldiers to Jerusalem. The United Nations also held an emergency session, criticizing the United States for the announcement.

Palestinian leadership, too, was unimpressed with the announcement. Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president, called it “deplorable and unacceptable” and said that it serves to “deliberately undermine all peace efforts”. Hamas, a radical group in opposition to the Palestinian Authority, called for another intifada, or Palestinian uprising. In response, the Palestinian street exploded. Around 5,000 Palestinian protesters participated in riots and clashed with Israeli security forces across the West Bank and Gaza on the Friday after the announcement. The protests continued over the next few days. According to Palestinian officials, two protesters were killed in the area near the Gaza border. Israel confirmed that soldiers fired on two “inciters”. Meanwhile, the Red Cross noted that 15 people were injured by tear gas and rubber bullets. In numerous locations across the West Bank, riots occurred, involving rock throwing, and the use of Molotov cocktails, by demonstrators. They also lit tires on fire, and rolled them towards Israeli soldiers. The soldiers used typical riot control, such as tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. However, live fire was also occasionally used.

Map of East and West Jerusalem, showing important Israeli government sites
Map of East and West Jerusalem, showing important Israeli government sites

This move represents a break from decades of American foreign policy. President after president made it clear that the status of Jerusalem was to be decided only by negotiations. Certainly, President Trump did not say explicitly that East Jerusalem is part of Israel (or Israel’s capital), but many see this as implied. After all, Israeli policy is that Jerusalem is a single united city, and on the ground, this is the case in many ways. Also on the ground, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. All the important Israeli government buildings, such as the Knesset (parliament), Supreme Court, main military cemetery (Mount Herzl), as well as the headquarters of all the cabinet ministries. Interestingly, these are all located in West Jerusalem, although this is more a function of the fact that East Jerusalem was Jordanian for the first nineteen years of Israel’s existence than a statement on how Jerusalem should be split.

It is also important to note that Israel itself accepted the principle of Jerusalem’s borders being up for negotiation. In the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, it was stated that “it is understood that these [later] negotiations shall cover remaining issues, including: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and co-operation with other neighbours, and other issues of common interest.” Of course, more than two decades of conflict rendered much of the Oslo Accords obsolete, but this rather explicit acceptance still very much exists. Meanwhile, the official Palestinian position is that Jerusalem should be divided as well. However, there is a deep distrust of Israel, and a widespread belief that Israel is looking to keep all of Jerusalem for itself. This belief is not particularly unfounded, given Israeli statements on the topic (in which Jerusalem is repeatedly described as in the divisible capital).

The announcement is likely to have a significant impact on Middle Eastern geopolitics, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Although it does not change the reality on the ground, or benefit any party in any way (aside from a symbolic benefit to Israel), Palestinians and other Muslim leaders began to question America’s commitment to the peace process. For example, Mahmoud Abbas said that he believes that the US is “abdicating its role as a peace mediator”. In addition, Israel is currently in the process normalizing relations with several Arab and Muslim states. However, they all condemned the move and Turkey, one of the few Muslim states with full diplomatic relations with Israel, threatened to cut them off.

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