In a momentous shift of US foreign policy, President Donald Trump in a speech on Wednesday is expected to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announce moving the American Embassy out of Tel Aviv to the divided holy city. No country in the world currently has an embassy in Jerusalem, which is partially an occupied territory under Israeli military control, and neither is it recognised internationally as being unilaterally under Israel’s jurisdiction or ownership.
Ever since the US recognised Israel as a nation after its turbulent inception in 1948, it has been the latter’s closest ally. In spite of that, US policy like the rest of the world has consistently maintained that the Jerusalem’s status should be decided in peace talks.
Conflicting claims in a partly occupied territory
Both Israel and the Palestinians claim the city as their capital. West Jerusalem has been the seat of the successive Israeli governments since 1949 and after the Six Day War in 1967 against Syria, Egypt and Jordan, occupation of East Jerusalem was achieved by the Israeli forces. Israel claimed the hence ‘united’ city as its capital. The Palestinians see the occupied East Jerusalem with predominantly Arab neighborhoods as the future capital of their separate nation-state in the two-states solution.
The old city within East Jerusalem, it must be remembered, has a triple religious significance — for Jews, Christians and Muslims. It is a home to the Al-Aqsa mosque — the third holiest site in the world for Muslims (after Mecca and Medina), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, and where he rose again and the Western Wall, a remnant of the holiest site in Judaism.
What’s at stake?
The Jerusalem issue goes back to the heart of the Israel-Palestine issue, which entails the rights of two immiscible, hostile communities on the land. Like Gaza, Ramallah and Nablus, East Jerusalem has been recognised by the world as an occupied territory and international law stipulates unambiguously that the Israelis are not allowed to change the status of the areas under its military rule.
Trump seeks to break this neutral equilibrium, a move being constituted in international opinion as a high-risk, provocative move, devoid of diplomatic calculations. In recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the US could reinforce Israel’s position that unlawful settlements and constructions allowed in the eastern side of the city are valid Israeli communities. The move is also very likely to scuttle future plans to launch Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Upending seven decades of US Policy
In the past, the US Congress, with its powerful pro-Israel lobbies, did press for the embassy move. In 1995, it passed a law ordering that it move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The President does, however, have to power to postpone the implementation of law in six-month increments — which was done each and every time since 1995, keeping in consideration the disturbance such a move could unleash in the Arab world.
Moving the American embassy to Jerusalem was a campaign promise of Trump, who said during the campaign that he would make the change quickly. In June, however, he signed another six-month extension, citing hopes of some kind of deal brokered between Israel and Palestinians with the help of son-in-law Jared Kushner. But he passed a deadline last Monday for the next six-month waiver on moving the US embassy.
What world leaders are saying
The expected move has drawn alarms, strong sentiments and warnings out of the Arab world and beyond. The Palestinians view the US shift on Jerusalem as a dangerous game changer that would finish the peace process. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly warned Trump of “dangerous consequences such a decision would have to the peace process and to the peace, security and stability of the region and of the world,” Nabil Abu Rudeina, the Palestinian president’s spokesperson, said in a statement, according to an Al Jazeera report.
Manuel Hassassian, Palestinian General Delegate to the UK, says Trump’s planned acknowledgement of Jerusalem as capital of Israel is “declaring war in the Middle East… and against 1.5bn Muslims” #r4today pic.twitter.com/mwvdubyR3w
— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) December 6, 2017
According to a Saudi Arabian state media report, the Saudi monarch King Salman told Donald Trump over the phone that an embassy relocation or recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would “constitute a flagrant provocation of Muslims all over the world” due to the great status of Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
— benwedeman (@bencnn) December 6, 2017
Among US allies, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined the chorus of opposition by saying that Jerusalem was a “red line for Muslims” and that his country’s response towards Trump’s move “could go as far as us cutting diplomatic ties with Israel”. “We implore the US once again: You cannot take this step,” he said.
The importance of not endangering the two-state solution and peace negotiations was emphasised by several others. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ spokesperson Stephane Dujarric recently told reporters in New York that he has “consistently warned against any unilateral action that would have the potential to undermine the two-state solution”. Reuters reported that Pope Francis too, in his weekly address, called on Wednesday for the “status quo” and UN resolutions on the city to be respected, stating that new tension in the Middle East would further inflame conflicts.
I contacted US Embassy directly yesterday to express Irelands strong concerns and to urge USA not to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital this week – it will make progress in Middle East Peace Process more difficult and provoke tension across the region https://t.co/7RWlM01pzA
— Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney) December 6, 2017
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top diplomat, told Al Jazeera that “any action that would undermine” peace efforts to create two separate states for the Israelis and the Palestinians “must absolutely be avoided.”