Nobody Knew Jerusalem Could Be So Complicated

May 19, 2017

[updated December, 2017]

President Trump has just announced that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and that he intends, at some point, to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The speech provoked an outcry in from the Palestinians and the US’ Arab allies in the Middle East, as well as opposition from major European allies.

To understand what lies behind Trump’s move and the reaction to it, we’ve prepared this Q&A.

Q: Why is this even an issue? Isn’t Jerusalem already Israel’s capital?

A:  Jerusalem was the capital of the historic kingdom of Israel and is the holiest city of the Jewish people. The city has been central to Jewish religious and national identity for more than three millennia, while also being home and deeply religiously significant to Muslims and Christians.

United Nations Resolution 181 — the framework for ending Britain’s League of Nations Mandate in 1947 to create independent Jewish and Arab states — recognized Jerusalem as an international city belonging to no country, with special legal and political status, to be administered by the United Nations. The 1948-9 Arab-Israeli war, however, meant that UN Resolution 181 never went into effect. Instead, Israel claimed sovereignty over the western parts of Jerusalem it won in the war and established its capital there. For its part, Jordan claimed sovereignty over the parts it won east of the armistice line — also known as the “Green Line” — including the Old City and its sacred sites.

Since that time, no action or decision of the international community has superseded the 1947 resolution. The consensus view of the international community — now with the exception of the United States — is that the status of Jerusalem can only be determined by the parties as a part of a resolution to the conflict.

During the June 1967 Six-Day War, Israel captured the Old City and the entire territory west of the Jordan River. It extended the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem later that month to incorporate a large swathe of territory captured in the Six-Day War, almost reaching Ramallah to the north and Bethlehem to the south. In 1980, it asserted sovereignty over this area, effectively annexing it and putting it under the control of Israeli law. This annexation has not been recognized by any country other than the United States.

While in practical terms parts of Jerusalem already serve as Israel’s capital, it will not be internationally recognized as such until Israel and the Palestinians reach an agreement that determines the status of the city.

Q: How has Trump’s announcement changed US policy toward Jerusalem?

While President Trump indicated that he will sign the waiver one more time, he has made clear that the United States now formally recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — and set in motion plans to relocate the embassy. In doing so, he has upended decades of bipartisan policy and seemingly recognized Israel’s claim to sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Since 1967, Democratic and Republican presidents alike have maintained the official United States position that the final status of the entirety of Jerusalem is to be decided by negotiations. Subsequently, they have studiously avoided any actions that could be interpreted as prejudging their outcome. As part of that nearly 50 year-long policy, the United States — like every other country with which Israel has bilateral relations — maintained its embassy in Tel Aviv. A few countries formerly maintained embassies in Jerusalem but all are now in Tel Aviv or its suburbs.

In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act requiring the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by May of 1999, but granted the president authority to issue a waiver suspending the move for a period of six months at a time. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama signed these waivers throughout their terms on the grounds that moving the embassy would not be in the national security interests of the US.

Q: But wait – why is just recognizing Israel as Jerusalem’s capital so problematic? Trump hasn’t even moved the embassy yet.

Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is just as dangerous, if not more so, than just moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. With Trump’s announcement, whether he signs the waiver or moves the embassy are moot points.

Moving the embassy would have just symbolically recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In his speech, Trump didn’t do recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem symbolically, he did it explicitly. That means if and when Trump actually moves the embassy, it will just be a formality, doubling down on the United States’ position on Jerusalem that he articulated in his address.

The consequences of Trump’s speech are already looking just as dire as if he had moved the embassy today. Trump’s declaration has angered key Arab allies, fomented regional instability and undermined US diplomatic efforts to construct viable negotiations. That’s why no US president has moved the embassy or recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the past. Both moves lead to the same, disastrous outcome.  

Q: Prime Minister Netanyahu and senior Israeli ministers have publicly welcomed the president’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Why do you think it was a bad idea?

A: Since the ultimate disposition of Jerusalem is a final status issue that must be negotiated by Israelis and Palestinians themselves, Trump’s announcement has caused serious harm to the United States’ credibility as a mediator. The United States will now be universally seen as having prejudged Jerusalem’s status, undermining confidence among Palestinians and all Arab countries in the region that the United States could play a productive role in negotiations going forward. We have already seen this play out in the furious responses to the move from the Germany, France and England, as well as the Palestinians, Jordanians and 57 member country Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

The embassy move and declaration that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital is seen as a major issue among the people of Arab countries. Leaders throughout the region, including those that are increasingly friendly toward Israel, have found themselves under intense domestic pressure to react strongly to Trump’s announcement.

From a security standpoint, the administration’s new Jerusalem policy is dangerously shortsighted. Even seemingly minor changes of Jerusalem’s status quo in fact or law have historically had immense impact on both sides and carry the potential to spark violence. One prominent example is then Israeli prime ministerial candidate Ariel Sharon’s controversial and unprecedented visit to the Temple Mount in 2000, which helped trigger riots and the terrible violence of the Second Intifada.

Changing US policy on Jerusalem is like throwing a match on an already explosive powder keg. For this reason, top officials at the State Department, the Pentagon and in the US intelligence community reportedly counseled the White House in June, last time Trump was considering whether to sign the waiver, not to take the drastic steps of moving the embassy.

Q: Especially now that Trump has recognized Jerusalem’s capital, won’t it be even harder to find a solution for it as part of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement? Doesn’t this move just solidify the repeated claim that Jerusalem is Israel’s “eternal and undivided capital?”

A: Well, let’s break down the assertion that Jerusalem is an “eternal and undivided city.”

First, “eternal.” Jerusalem is an amazing, ancient city. But the Jerusalem that Jews have evoked at the end of our Passover seders since the Middle ages (“Next year in Jerusalem.”) represents only a tiny portion of the area within the current municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, drawn by the modern state of Israel. The East Jerusalem of today comprises an area ten times larger than when the city was under Jordanian rule, only decades ago. Outside the Old City, most of this area was never considered part of Jerusalem. This is an important factor to keep in mind when considering final status negotiations. There are some useful maps here.

Second, undivided. It’s possible to get this impression if the only part of East Jerusalem you travel to is the Old City. But if you venture further, it’s easy to see that the city is already quite divided (and 61 percent of Israelis say so). Israel’s separation barrier, in fact, disconnects portions of municipal Jerusalem from the rest of the city. Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem do not have Israeli citizenship (though they can apply for it), nor are they technically subject to the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. They vote in local municipal elections, but are heavily underserved and marginalized by the general city authorities. Beyond physical barriers, Jerusalem’s divide can be seen in disparities in access to basic municipal services and in the rarity of residents venturing beyond their half of the city.

This separation has allowed Israeli and Palestinian experts to draw up maps during previous negotiations that would allow each party to maintain sovereignty over various areas of the city under a peace deal. And, during these talks, creative solutions have been found on the hardest issues, including the Old City and the Holy Basin. Sure, it’s complicated. With Trump’s announcement, it’s even thornier politically. But it’s still possible.

Join us for our upcoming call on Jerusalem with Aaron David Miller

From the J Street Blog