Today President Trump made the United States the first country to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Jerusalem, of course, has been controlled by Israel in its entirety since 1967, and West Jerusalem has been administered by Israel since 1948. Israel itself is adamant that the undivided city will remain its capital. And yet, this decision could be one of the most destructive Trump has taken since coming to office. So how did this become such a debate, and why is this such a bad decision?
How did we get here?
Israel’s formation in 1948 was a messy affair which I won’t get into here, and it involved injustices on all sides. Jerusalem was just one issue. The UN has resolved that it should be a ‘corpus seperatum’ – a fancy word for a city that was neither Israeli nor Palestinian, but a holy place that should be internationally administered. However, in the 1948 war between Israel and the Arab states, Israel took West Jerusalem, and Jordan the East – the section which includes the Old City and some of the holiest sites to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Neither of these actions was legal under international law, and neither was recognised.
Then, in the 1967 Six Day War, Israel took East Jerusalem as well, and immediately began treating the city as a reunited capital. The annexation was condemned by the UN Security Council, and has never been recognised by any state. The UN and all member states consider the status of all of Jerusalem an issue to be solved in an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. All states have their embassy in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem, as that would imply recognition.
In 1995 though, the US Senate decided to get involved, so they passed a resolution that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and that the US embassy should be moved there. Every president since has postponed moving the embassy every six months, as the resolution allows, and have not officially recognised it as the capital. Now, however, Trump has thrown this out the window. So why is this such a huge issue?
1. It cripples the chances for peace
The status of Jerusalem is one of the most difficult issues preventing peace between Israel and Palestine. It’s generally assumed that, in broad strokes, West Jerusalem could become part of Israel, and East Jerusalem in some form the capital of Palestine, though the Israelis dispute this. However, an exact division always been an issue that would be up for discussion in a final settlement. The US siding with Israel makes a compromise far more difficult
2. It means the US can never again be an effective mediator in regional conflicts
For decades the US has tried to play a mediating role between Israel and Palestine – with not too much success. Despite the fact that the US is Israel’s strongest ally, in general they could at least present themselves as a fairly neutral partner in negotiations. However, by taking Israel’s side on such a vital matter to both sides, and in a way that no other country has, it will be almost impossible for the Palestinians to ever take them seriously again. Arab countries too will be infuriated – this is going to further damage the US’s position in the region.
3. It hurts the US’s relations with the world
The Trump presidency has not exactly been a success for the US on the world stage, with trust in the US plummeting. By rejecting a position that the UN and entire world have taken, Trump yet again shows that his administration is not interested in engaging productively with others. The idea that you cannot annex territory that you conquer in a war is so key to the way states interact – just look at how few states have recognised Russia’s annexation of Crimea. For the US to recognise Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem weakens their position in every way.
4. It’s being done for stupid reasons
Let’s be honest, does anyone think Trump has deeply held positions on the status of Jerusalem? He did this because the evangelical conservative base of his party wants to see it happen, and he could do with a boost in the polls. The idea that this will somehow “advance the peace process” is a joke – the Palestinians are hardly going to roll over and accept that Jerusalem is no longer up for discussion.
This is a decision no one agrees with, and that will help no one except the right-wingers in Israel and the United States. The days ahead will already show whether the reaction is as bad as I expect, but it’s already another confirmation that when you elect a terrible person president, you get terrible policy.