With his Jerusalem play, Trump grasps a nettle others feared
US president's boldness ends years of dithering in Washington. It's also likely to scupper hopes of the peace process being revived and herald another (unsuccessful) intifada
President Donald Trump made a historic announcement on Wednesday, recognizing Jerusalem — rather than Tel Aviv — as the “eternal capital” of the State of Israel. This will eventually mean transferring the US embassy to Jerusalem, an act that could take “at least three years,” according to Trump Administration officials.
Arab leaders are furious, warning that the move could plunge an already volatile Middle East into more violence and extremism, and describing it as the kiss of death for the two-state solution. Palestinians of every form and shape insist that Jerusalem is historically, morally, demographically, and geographically theirs, and that the Israelis are illegal occupiers. They would never settle for it becoming the future capital of Israel and are likely to spark off another uprising, or intifada.
Trump’s decision says many things at once. For starters, it means that he has little faith in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and sees no hope in its resurrection. The decision to move the capital has been on the to-do-list of every US president since Bill Clinton. It had the strong backing of Congress, and yet all kept delaying the decision to “give peace a chance.” They knew that such a provocation would only inflame the region, giving ammunition to the extremists while silencing Arab moderates.
During the 1993 peace talks, then-Palestinian president Yasser Arafat postponed discussing the topic altogether with Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin. They both realized that Jerusalem was a potentially explosive topic that would kill the talks if it were raised in a serious manner. Instead, they simply decided to let future leaders handle the issue. Since coming to power last January, Trump has delegated peace talks to his special envoy Jason D. Greenblatt, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Both have been unable to inch the Palestinians and Israelis closer to an agreement, perhaps explaining why Trump — with his hands up in the air — decided to go ahead with his move, saying that he was fulfilling one of his 2016 campaign promises.
A close look at the recent history of the Middle East shows us that, when it comes to Jerusalem, there is no such thing as an Arab moderate willing to accept Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. All Arabs get worked up when it comes to the future of the historic city. But this is actually where the enthusiasm ends. Apart from the Islamists, nobody is willing to pay money, procure arms, or provide anything but solemn prayer for the Palestinians. And even if they did, such measures have never succeeded in restoring Jerusalem to its Arab owners.
Back in 1947, the UN General Assembly issued a famous resolution calling for the Partition of Palestine between Jews and Arabs. Jerusalem was “internationalized” and put under UN trusteeship, but the Arabs cried foul and sent their unified armies, with a total of 20,000 troops, to “liberate Jerusalem” and the rest of Palestine in mid-May 1948. They fought a lopsided battle with the Zionist forces and were crushed. A total of 5,000 Arab troops were killed in battle, over 400 Palestinian villages were razed to the ground, and three quarters of a million people were stripped of their belongings and ordered out of their homes at gunpoint. Palestine was erased from the map of the world and Jerusalem was divided in half, with the Israelis taking its western part while the Arabs were given East Jerusalem — the old part of the city, which included historic places of worship sacred to Muslims, Jews, and Christians.
That area was annexed to the newly founded kingdom of Jordan, which remained in control of Jerusalem until the outbreak of the second Arab-Israeli War of 1967. East Jerusalem was subsequently occupied, creating an eternal problem for the Middle East. Palestinians rose in revolt in 1965, 1987, and 2000. They failed drastically to liberate Jerusalem, as have Arab military groups like Hezbollah.
Apart from the Islamists, nobody is willing to pay money, procure arms, or provide anything but solemn prayer for the Palestinians. And even if they did, such measures have never succeeded in restoring Jerusalem to its Arab owners
The Trump decision speaks volumes about the President’s boldness and audacity. Back in 1948, Harry Truman refused to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over west Jerusalem, although he was strongly pro-Zionist and had automatically recognized the newly created State of Israel. When the Israelis inaugurated their first parliament in west Jerusalem in 1949, Truman declined to send a representative because “the United States cannot support any arrangement which would purport to authorize the establishment of Israeli sovereignty over parts of the Jerusalem area.”
After 1967, Lyndon Johnson noted that the status of Jerusalem “should be decided not unilaterally but in consultation with all concerned.” The US noted that it did not recognize any measures “altering the status of Jerusalem” or “prejudging the final and permanent status of Jerusalem.” In 1980, Israel unilaterally declared Jerusalem as its “united and eternal capital”—a move that was strongly criticized by then-President Jimmy Carter.
Clinton went as far as to challenge Congress, after it passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. The bipartisan resolution specified: “Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the state of Israel” by a date “no later” than May 31, 1999. Clinton said no, arguing that section 3(b) of the act was unconstitutional because the Constitution gave him, as president, executive authority to conduct diplomatic relations with other states and he did not see it fit to move the capital at that stage. To avoid a presidential veto, Congress amended the act to include a waiver, giving the president the right to suspend the move for a period of six months “if he determines and reports to Congress…that such suspension is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States.” Clinton waivered the move, and so did every one of his successors for 22 years, until Trump came along this December, putting an end to the debate.