by Stephanie Stockwell and Matthew Kriner
The Trump administration recently outlined their decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In the wake of this announcement we have seen a rush of questions regarding the details, timeline, and importance of this decision.
In response, we at Geopolitalk have put together this structured Q&A. We hope to provide both context and answers to those difficult questions.
Is Jerusalem the capital of Israel? Has it always been that way?
Given the contested status, complex legal implications, and decades of international debate surrounding the city, it is understandable that those who aren’t directly affected by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are at times unsure of this. From the establishment of Israel in 1948, to President Trumps announcement on December 6, 2017 the United States has maintained its embassy in the city of Tel Aviv. Despite Israel’s own designation of Jerusalem as its capital at the conclusion of the 1948 War of Independence, the U.S. has always refrained from this recognition, due to a variety of complex diplomatic and security concerns.
The neutral stance of the United States did not change when Israel liberated/ captured (dependent on your perspective of the Six-Day War) East Jerusalem from the Kingdom of Jordan in 1967. While Israel has celebrated this victory of a unified Jerusalem, international law and the United Nations largely view this as an illegal occupation. This is due largely to the original partition plan agreed upon by the UN in 1947, which dictates that Jerusalem is to be an internationally managed city.
As chief peace broker between the Israelis and Palestinians, the U.S. has historically sought to retain an unbiased stance towards the status of Jerusalem.
Why is Jerusalem so important?
Jerusalem is a city with immense historical and religious meaning to the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). In Judaism, and for Israelis at large, much of Jerusalem’s significance stems from the historical presence of the Jewish people in the region and their religious roots in the land of Israel. Judaism maintains that the Temple Mount is were Abraham prepared his son Isaac for sacrifice, as well as the site of the First and Second Temple of Solomon. Furthermore, many of the Jewish faith believe that the Dome of the Rock is the Holy of Holies, or the dwelling place of God. Because of this, the Western Wall, which borders the Temple Mount, is the holiest site of prayer in the Jewish faith.
For Muslims, the city is known as al-Quds and hosts the al-Aqsa Mosque, where the prophet Mohammad travelled to and prayed during his Night Journey from Mecca. Jerusalem is also home to the Shrine of the Dome of the Rock, where the prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven. Furthermore, Islam maintains that Abraham, Solomon, David and Jesus were all divine prophets and reveres their association with Jerusalem. For Palestinians, the city is their declared capital stemming from the 1998 PLO Declaration of Independence, and is an integral aspect of the Palestinian’s national and Muslim identities.
For Christians, Jerusalem’s importance finds roots in the Old Testament, and is central to the life and death of Christ. Most notably, Jerusalem is the site of the Last Supper, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus. The Old City is also home to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is believed to hold the empty tomb of Christ.
Today, Jerusalem is a holy site of prayer, worship, and pilgrimage for all three of these religions. The close proximity, both geographic and symbolic, of these sites fuels religiously driven conflict and further complicates the geopolitical landscape. However, this proximity is also indicative of the close doctrinal relationship shared by Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
President Trump needs to sign a waiver? What for?
In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Act, following a rather unusual battle of Executive versus Congressional powers over foreign policy. In the end, President Clinton declined to sign the bill into law, and instead allowed it to lapse into an “automatic” state of law. A provision of the Jerusalem Act set the deadline for moving the American embassy in Israel as “no later than May 31, 1999.” In this section, it is stated that if the embassy is not moved by this deadline then the funding for the State Department facilities abroad will be cut by half. In 1998, Congress approved an amendment that would forestall the withholding of those funds, allowing the embassy to remain in Tel Aviv, provided that the administration sign a six month waiver stating that a delay in the recognition of Jerusalem was “believed to be necessary to protect national security interests.”
Every president since the passage of this amendment (including President Trump) has signed this waiver, renewing it every six months. The waiver that Trump signed in June is up for renewal and he is expected to sign a new one in the coming weeks. This waiver has been maintained by every administration since 1998, who have all determined that national security interests were more important than the symbolic gesture of moving the embassy.
Will the embassy be moved immediately?
No. While the impact of this decision is already proving to have serious repercussions, this is going to be a lengthy process that might not be completed during Trump’s term in office. In his Wednesday announcement, Trump described the hiring of architects and engineers to build an embassy that would serve as a “ magnificent tribute to peace”. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson announced on Friday that moving the Embassy “is not something that is going to happen this year, probably not next year.”
Why is this decision happening now?
The timing of this decision is a natural outcome of President Trump’s campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy. It also preempted a visit by Vice President Mike Pence to Israel this month, during which he was slated to meet with Palestinian leaders (presumptively to build on the discussions and meetings Presidential Advisor Jared Kushner has held over the last year). Not surprisingly, most of the meetings have since been called off in protest of the official recognition of Jerusalem by President Trump. Formerly the Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence is a staunch evangelical Christian who represents a voice in the American public that views the Israeli control of Jerusalem as critical to the fulfillment of prophetic stepping stones towards the return of Christ. He has never held back his desire to see the embassy moved to Jerusalem, promoting such a move at AIPAC’s annual conference in February of this year.
Most interestingly, the timing of this will seemingly derail what had become a viable thawing in relations between Israel and some Gulf States like Saudi Arabia, as they both were uniting over fears of Iranian regional expansion and terrorism support. It is possible that PM Netanyahu may be openly praising this decision by the Trump Administration, while quietly holding concerns that a regional coalition against Iran will fail to unfold. Conversely, there could be a longer game afoot amid the reshuffle in the Kingdom and platitudes are offered to ease the street-level frustrations over the Jerusalem announcment by President Trump. And just this week, Israeli Intelligence Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz suggested that Saudi Arabia may take the lead role of sponsoring Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. It seems that the fallout could go either way, and only time will tell.
So, what did President Trump say, and what does the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital actually mean?
In his speech outlining the change in U.S. policy regarding Jerusalem, President Trump stated the following:
“I’ve judged this course of action to be in the best interests of the United States of America and the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians;”
“Israel is a sovereign nation with the right like every other sovereign nation to determine its own capital. Acknowledging this is a fact is a necessary condition for achieving peace.”
Legally, and politically, the decision represents a monumental shift in American foreign policy regarding the Middle East’s most tumultuous conflict. Until now, the U.S. had not recognized the legal claims of sovereignty by ANY nation to Jerusalem. This policy stance is in keeping with the original U.N. partition framework designed and proposed to keep the city as an internationally managed territory. All of this, of course, before the Israeli declaration of Independence in 1948, and subsequent war waged by Arab nations against the fledgling state which saw the borders of the U.N. Partition plan altered dramatically.
Thus, by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the U.S. has tacitly acknowleded Israel’s sovereignty claims to Jerusalem over that of the Palestinians. In doing so, two critical issues are highlighted that have beleaguered peace talks for decades. First, Israel officially claims through its basic law that Jerusalem is its “unified” and “whole” capital. Palestinians, at least those that are lawfully empowered to act as negotiating powers (as opposed to entities such as Hamas — a terrorist group), claims East Jerusalem as its official capital. The ambiguities of President Trump’s recognition open up a lot of uncertainty regarding the reach of Israel’s Jerusalem and many worry that this may negate Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem. You can read more here about the technical aspects and implications of President Trump’s ambiguity.
Furthermore, the U.S. State Department has now been explicitly instructed to begin the process of moving the American Embassy from its beachfront view of the Mediterranean in Tel-Aviv, to an un-determined location in the (likely) Western half of Jerusalem. The physical move will not happen overnight, and will likely not happen during President Trump’s first (or only) term. The expected cost to taxpayers has yet to be determined, and security concerns will likely be a considerable hurdle for such a dramatic shift in physical operations.
Why don’t more countries have their embassy in Jerusalem, if Israel says it is their capital?
The unresolved legal status of Jerusalem in the eyes of the international community plays a significant role in the continued use of Tel Aviv as the recognized capital of Israel by much of the world’s diplomatic missions to the Jewish State.
Israel maintains that Jerusalem has been a unified city since the 1967 Six-Day War. However, the EU, the UN General Assembly, and the UN Security Council have determined that both Jerusalem and the West Bank are territories occupied by Israel. “Occupation” is a loaded term that can trigger international sanctions or more worryingly, a charge in the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Most recently, these concerns were reflected in UNSC Resolution 2334, condemning the continued expansion of Israeli settlements. The Obama administration abstained from voting for or against this particular resolution, prompting outrage from the pro-Israel community in America and from Israeli officials — particularly then-candidate Trump and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.
Regarding American foreign policy, the decision to keep the American Embassy out of Jerusalem can be traced back to the Truman administration. In 1948 President Truman readily acknowledged the State of Israel following their declaration of independence. However, he refused to acknowledge Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, stating in a diplomatic cable that:
“the United States cannot support any arrangement which would purport to authorize the establishment of Israeli … sovereignty over parts of the Jerusalem area.”
Prior to 1980, thirteen countries did maintain their embassies in Jerusalem. However, in response to a proclamation issued by the Knesset declaring Jerusalem to be Israel’s “United and Eternal Capital”, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution (the vote for which the United States also abstained from) that called for the withdrawal of all embassies from Jerusalem.
The last countries to have embassies in Jerusalem were Costa Rica and El Salvador, who both relocated to Tel Aviv in 2006. Costa Rica initiated the move, acknowledging that maintaining their diplomatic mission in Jerusalem was detrimental to both their international standing, as well as their relationship with the Arab world and Islamic culture as a whole. El Salvador followed suit a week later, citing their recognition of the right for a Palestinian state to exist.
What are the implications and likely outcomes of President Trump’s decision?
Most likely, this decision will provide more fuel to the long-held belief in Arab populations that the U.S. and Israel are disingenuous negotiating parties in peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis. This belief and subsequent sense of betrayal could very well lead to a degradation in diplomatic relations with key U.S. partners in the region. It is no secret that the Palestinian cause has long been parroted by Arab states and leaders as a means of mobilization for domestic political gain. However, they cannot afford to look soft to their own constituency, and thus are likely to engage in strong rhetoric and symbolic diplomatic actions like suspending relations or boycotting Israel. Already Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan has called for East Jerusalem to be declared the capital of Palestine and for the U.S. to be precluded as a broker in future peace negotiations. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has also declared East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital, but added the critical word: “occupied.” Essentially, this escalation of the situation catapults the final status of Jerusalem far above the bilateral negotiation between Palestinians and Israelis (the stated desired process of nearly all parties involved as it would respect sovereignty of both peoples), and subjects it to a broader Muslim-Western contest over the religiously important city.
From a regional security standpoint, it is abundantly clear that the decision by the Trump Administration has emboldened and empowered radical elements and terrorist organizations within the Muslim community who will seek to use this development as a pretext for escalating rhetorical and physical conflict with Israel and the West. Almost immediately after the declaration, the leader of the terrorist organization Hamas called for a third Intifada, and rockets and air strikes have been traded along the border with Gaza.
This contempt is unlikely to be contained to the immediate conflict zone. For example, Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has warned that “[t]ransferring the US Embassy to Jerusalem would be a public and more-explicit-than-ever declaration of war against Islam.” Extreme Islamist movements and organizations have already been using the narrative that the U.S. is ‘waging a war on Islam’ as justification for and advancement of anti-American sentiments. Al-Sadr’s statement will not only resonate with these smaller radical factions, but is indicative of the traction and credibility that that these groups may gain in more moderate and mainstream communities — communities that would otherwise hold the issue of Jerusalem at arm’s length.
Critically, it is narratives like these that spur incidents of home-grown violent extremism and terrorism in the U.S. through inspired attacks such as those that have become the new terror normal in Europe.
What is the “two-state solution”?
The two-state solution is the official stance of the U.S., the E.U., and Israel regarding peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians on how the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be resolved. In essence, it operates under a diplomatic framework that would see two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine, living side by side. Understandably, this is a complex process that has been marred and set back by spates of violence and false starts in negotiations due to internal and external political considerations. Historically, the U.S. has served as the main broker of peace between the two parties, notably the Madrid Peace Talks, the Oslo Accords (though initiated by the two sides secretly), the Wye River Talks, the Camp David Summit, and the Red Sea Summit.
Within the history of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, there are a few key issues that have consistently been reserved for later stage negotiation. These issues have earned themselves the nickname ‘final status’ issues — of which Jerusalem is probably the heaviest and most contentious.
What does this mean for Palestinian national aspirations?
To start, this decision drastically decreases any Palestinian diplomatic leverage in a final status negotiation for their claims to East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. By not clearly defining the borders of Israel’s Jerusalem (a vagueness that President Trump claims will preserve the two-state peace process) President Trump’s decision will likely be interpreted by many as an out-and-out endorsement of a unified and Jewish Jerusalem. From a Palestinian perspective, President Trump appears to have ‘chosen Israel’s side.’ This is a dramatic blow to Palestinian long-term goals of sharing Jerusalem with Israel under a two-state solution.
Practically, the sentiment on the street for many Palestinians is best characterized as frustrated and despairing. According to President Trump this “will help promote peace” and PM Benjamin Netanyahu asserted that “[t]he sooner the Palestinians come to grips with this reality, the sooner we will move towards peace.” Palestinians seem to disagree, taking to the streets to demonstrate in large protests.
How does the declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital affect a two-state solution?
In a cynical view, it likely spells the end of the two-state solution as has been pushed for by past American administrations. To find a silver lining, it could bring about a precipitous end to the conflict; though an end that will likely be fraught with violent backlash in the streets and followed by years of legal battles to finalize sticky and convoluted details about sovereignty, legal rights, settlements, refugees, water, and much more.
Such a conclusion, however, will not likely be a sustainable peace as the most likely courses of action by the Palestinians in response will be to seek a one-state solution wherein they gain full citizenship within an Israeli state (which would jeapordize the Jewish character of the state of Israel via demographics), or annexation of the West Bank by the state of Israel (a solution that has been proposed by right-wing politicians multiple times). The latter of these two options would assuredly create a situation where Arab-Palestinians do not receive equal treatment under the law if not granted full Israeli citizenship (see above comment about demographic threat to the Jewish character of Israel — a red line issue for virtually all Israelis and the U.S.); often this inequality is referred to as apartheid.
Trump says this will help the peace process – is this true?
Frankly it’s hard to see how this will help the peace process if the goal is to achieve a peaceful two-state solution such as that outlined in the Clinton Parameters (President Bill Clinton’s brokered arrangement that was accepted by both sides, but invariably fell apart under additional demands). Theoretically, it could be possible that, with regional dynamics changing in the face of Iranian expansionism and growing support for terror (particularly in Syria and Iraq), Arab states like the Gulf states might apply pressure to the Palestinians to accept a deal of statehood, sans a capital in Jerusalem. However, early responses to the Trump Administration’s decision indicate that that will not be the case. Jerusalem is the third holiest site in Islam and has long been the rallying cry by the Arab states to shift public opinion in times that it would seek to go to war with Israel. It’s hard seeing that shift now just because an Iranian influence is growing.
Most importantly, Palestinian negotiators have their own red lines, chief of which is having East Jerusalem as their capital. After years of failure to advance their agenda for statehood, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is on thin ice with Palestinian citizens, and it is very difficult to imagine that PA President Mahmoud Abbas would commit political suicide by abdicating the most critical platform item in their push for statehood. It would be akin to Israeli PM Netanyahu waking up one morning and deciding that Israel no longer has to be a Jewish state. Not likely.