At a planned speech on Wednesday, President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Why could this “plunge”, as Ankara said, “the region and the world into a fire with no end in sight”
What is the big deal about Jerusalem?
Jerusalem is in ways emblematic of the Israel-Palestine conflict itself. At its heart lies the tussle over who gets to control the ancient city that is sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. After the end of the First Arab-Israel War in 1948, Jerusalem was partitioned into West and East, under Israeli and Palestinian control respectively. But in June 1967, during the Six-Day Arab-Israel War, Israel snatched East Jerusalem from Jordanian forces, and Israel’s Parliament declared the territory had been “annexed to Israel” and Jerusalem had been “reunited”.
This marginalised the Palestinians, who wanted East Jerusalem to be their capital under the “two-state solution”. Undeterred by the refusal of the international community to endorse the annexation, Israel added over 200,000 Jewish settlers to the once-almost entirely Arab East Jerusalem. Despite Israel’s hold over its “united and eternal capital”, in December 2016, the UN reaffirmed that Jerusalem’s Palestinian territories were under “hostile occupation”. Foreign embassies to Israel are in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. The positions of countries on the status of the city differ by degrees, but virtually none recognise the Israeli claim. India has traditionally backed a two-state solution, and assured that the Indian embassy would stay in Tel Aviv. Given all this, Trump recognising Jerusalem as the capital solely of Israel will mark a huge policy shift.
OK, but is the fight only over territory?
It is over both faith and civic space. Jerusalem has the Western Wall, part of the mount on which the Holy Temple stood, containing the Holy of Holies, the most sacred Jewish site where Jews believe the foundation creating the world was located, and where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son; the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam; and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, and where he rose again. Millions visit these shrines, and friction over who controls Jerusalem sets off unrest. In July, protests started after a shootout between Israeli Arab gunmen and Israeli policemen near the Temple Mount. The tension extends to civic rights — about 37% of Jerusalem’s population is Arab, but municipal budgets allegedly discriminate against Palestinians, who live with residence permits that can be revoked. Palestinians also face segregation, surrounded by post-1967 Jewish enclaves, and there have been reports of Israeli soldiers targetting Palestinian civilians in acts of intimidation.
So, why is Trump taking this step now?
Back in 1995, when Bill Clinton was President, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, recognising the city as Israel’s capital. But while Presidents Clinton, Bush Jr and Obama have backed the law domestically, international realities have kept them from implementing it. Thus, the US President signs a waiver every six months, deferring the decision to move the embassy. On campaign, Trump promised to implement the Jerusalem Embassy Act. Speculation that he was close to delivering arose after he missed two deadlines to sign the waiver.
How have other countries reacted?
The Islamic world is outraged. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has warned of “dangerous consequences”, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Saudi King Salman have cautioned the US, Turkey has threatened to cut ties with Israel, Iran has declared that “the Palestinian nation will achieve victory”, China has said it “could sharpen regional conflict”, Egypt, the Arab League and several European nations have expressed grave reservations, and the Pope has pleaded for status quo. Hamas has threatened an intifada, and Hezbollah could react aggressively. India, friends with both Palestine and Israel, could face a quandary.
What does Trump hope to gain?
He no doubt seeks to please his core base of pro-Israel hardliners. But as with most political developments in the Middle East, a bigger regional game could be afoot, including, possibly, a US-Saudi-Israel alliance against Iran, the common enemy. Critics have also pointed to alleged Israeli attempts to pressure Trump’s transition team, which could fall in the scope of the investigation by special counsel Robert S Mueller III. And there may be the hidden hand of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who is reportedly close to Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, Jared Kushner (who faces allegations of interests in Israeli settlements). Hearing the last in this story is a long way away.