The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel

US President Donald Trump’s words were intended to placate the Palestinians, as he explicitly stated that the American position on the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty had not changed.

December 16, 2017 21:47
MUSLIMS PRAY next to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

MUSLIMS PRAY next to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The historic announcement on December 6, 2017, that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, evoked both expressions of support and waves of protest. However, it seemed that many did not understand the full significance of what President Trump described as the “recognition of reality.” He stated explicitly that the American position on the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty had not changed, and said indirectly that American recognition of Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s “capital” only applied to that part of the reality that is not disputed by the Palestinians and Arab states. Moreover, while Israeli expressions of satisfaction with the American president’s move are justified, if the leaders of neighboring Arab states that are considered US allies – Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – analyze his words carefully, they will understand they contain nothing that contradicts the Arab peace initiative.

The first country to recognize Israel after it declared its independence in 1948, was also the first to formally recognize Jerusalem as its capital. Throughout the world, and particularly in the Middle East, religious and nationalist movements have challenged the validity of states and borders as defined in the past. Therefore, there is more than symbolism in the move by President Trump, who, inter alia, based the recognition on the ancient connection of the Jewish people to its capital.

As expected, President Trump’s announcement evoked both expressions of support and waves of protest. The Muslim and Arab world, divided for many years, found in the president’s announcement, something to divert attention from the frustration, despair, and disappointment caused by the failure of the awakening called the “Arab Spring.” The announcement boosted reconciliation efforts between the Palestinians’ two ideological-geographical sectors, as it was easy for all parties involved to unite around the subject of Jerusalem. In Israel, the debate intensified – between supporters of concessions in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria for the sake of full peace with the Palestinians – and those who proclaim the unquestioned right of the Jewish people to all these places. And in the European Union, two member states prevented a joint statement by foreign ministers that criticized the announcement.

However, it seemed that although many had heard or read the declaration, they had skipped a key sentence or were ignoring its significance. Trump said: “Today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more, or less than a recognition of reality.” The reality that was partly described by the president himself is that all the official institutions of the State of Israel are located in the western part of the city. However, Israel also applied Israeli law to the land that was annexed to Jerusalem in 1967, including east Jerusalem and surrounding villages and refugee camps. A partial response to any charge that the president avoided the reality that was created in the city after 1967, was given by Trump when he said: “We are not taking a position on any final-status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.”

Trump’s words were intended to placate the Palestinians, as he explicitly stated that the American position on the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty had not changed, and indirectly said that American recognition of Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s “capital” only applied to that part of the reality that is not disputed by the Palestinians and Arab states. These words should have also cooled the reactions of many Israelis in the various political camps who rejoiced at the declaration. But both inside and outside Israel the more modest meaning was ignored. Some in Israel even compared the statement to the century-old Balfour Declaration, which recognized the Jewish people’s right to a national home in the Land of Israel – although the two are only identical these aspects: the recognition by a leading power of the Jewish people’s right to a national home, and the recognition of the Jewish state’s right to determine its own capital.

President Trump’s announcement prompted surprisingly harsh reactions, beyond what might have been expected, particularly since it is not clear if those reactions are based on an accurate reading of his text. Some came from leaders and foreign policy decision-makers around the world who specifically referred to a change in the status quo in Jerusalem, allegedly deriving that from the announcement itself. The reactions were surprising because some of them came from the representatives of countries that recognize the reality cited by Trump and conduct themselves in accordance this reality, exactly like the United States. The president of the State of Israel hosts heads of state and their representatives at his residence in Jerusalem, as does the prime minister. Heads of state have given speeches at the Knesset in Jerusalem, including former president of Egypt Anwar Sadat. Foreign ambassadors, who are obliged to submit their credentials to the sovereign power of the country to which they are assigned, do so at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. Official institutions, such as most government ministries and the Knesset, were moved to Jerusalem a short time after Israel declared its independence, and since the time of Israel’s second president, his official residence has been in Jerusalem. The US president stated that he recognized this reality, and by doing that was not changing the status quo that has existed since the establishment of the state in 1948. He noted that he had given instructions to start preparations for moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, although he did not indicate a timetable.

Those who still rely on Resolution 181 of the United Nations General Assembly from 1947 (the partition plan), to justify their opposition to Trump’s move should be reminded that according to the resolution, 10 years were allotted for the creation of a “separate entity” (corpus separatum) for Jerusalem. This period ended on September 30, 1958. Others, like High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, rely on Resolution 478 of the Security Council, adopted in 1980, following Israel’s passage of the Jerusalem Law. According to that resolution, members of the UN were called on not to recognize this law or other Israeli actions that changed the character and status of Jerusalem. The United States itself abstained from voting and, in addition, Trump declared that there was no intention to change the status quo. However, if the US does indeed implement the president’s intention to move its embassy to Jerusalem, it could breach the resolution, as it called on states that had located their embassies in Jerusalem to move them. Resolution 478 itself did not refer to the reality in which UN members that recognize Israel and have diplomatic relations with it do so in Jerusalem, and certainly did not call for a change in this reality, wherever the embassies are situated.

Why was this US announcement made now? And how will President Trump’s declaration affect the political situation between Israel and the Palestinians?

Regarding the timing, Trump presumably wished to fulfill his campaign promise to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and was in a dilemma when faced with signing a postponement of this measure, required by American law every six months. As for the second question, Trump himself explained that even though his predecessors refrained from moving the embassy since Congress had passed the law in 1995, peace between Israel and the Palestinians was no nearer. At the same time, the president said he remains committed to promote a peace agreement and would do everything in his power to achieve peace. He also declared his desire to achieve the “ultimate deal” between the Palestinians and Israel, and mentioned a plan or initiative to be presented to both sides. In the wake of the announcement, opponents, including the Palestinian negotiators, have rejected the US as an honest broker. On the Israeli side, some contend that the US would now demand concessions to the Palestinians “in return for” the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In any event, the role of the US in the rounds of talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors has been controversial since 1973. Nonetheless, both sides have asked Washington for assistance to close the gaps in their positions at various stages of the negotiations. Demonstrations of anger and burning the American flag will not change the reality that the American administration is the only international element that has any degree of influence on Israel’s positions in negotiations with its neighbors.

Following the president’s announcement, there were limited demonstrations among Arabs in Israel, in east Jerusalem and in the territories. A Salafist organization in Gaza fired rockets toward Israel. In the course of actions taken by Israel to curb the demonstrations near the Gaza border and in the response to the rocket fire, four Palestinians were killed. In other areas people were injured, but overall, the restrained responses of the IDF and the Israel Police helped keep the demonstrations under control. At this stage, it is not clear whether the harsh criticisms of Trump’s declaration will lead to a new wave of lone attacks. Larger demonstrations were held in many cities in the Arab and Muslim world.

The forthcoming visit to the region by Vice President Mike Pence will likely prolong the wave of demonstrations and protests. But at this stage, it seems that in the absence of any concrete move to transfer the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the protests will die down, and with them the danger of violent actions. The customary reduction in political and diplomatic activity as the calendar year draws to a close could also help cool heated sentiments.

If indeed there is an American or any other initiative that could serve as the basis for renewed political negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, its chances of success depend only minimally on US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The contents of the initiative, the internal political situation in Israel and among the Palestinians, the personal status of the leaders on both sides, and the situation in the Middle East and the international arena, will all exert far greater influence.

Apart from expressing its gratitude, Israel has a role beyond keeping the territory quiet, particularly if there is an American initiative to renew negotiations that refers to Jerusalem, whether that is a single initiative geared toward a full, permanent settlement, or partial agreements with the final objective of two states for two peoples. Israel can adopt a policy that helps strengthen President Trump and promotes his moves.

This appeared in INSS Insight No. 1000, December 13, 2017.

The author is a former deputy chief of mission, embassy of Israel in Washington (1986- 1990) and head of Israel’s negotiations team with the Palestinians (1999-2000), and currently a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

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