Moving US embassy to Jerusalem is a big deal and a bad idea
Jerusalem is a tinderbox – if ignited the fire can blaze far beyond the contested city’s limits
Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is a famously confident and fluent speaker, but the Israeli prime minister sounded uncharacteristically coy on Wednesday morning when he praised the growing support for Israel’s “national identity” – hours before the US president Donald Trump was set to announce formal US recognition of Jerusalem as the country’s capital.
Netanyahu has long promoted recognition to emphasise the historic ties that bind the Jewish people to the ancient city. Trump’s decision, reversing decades of US policy while ignoring strident opposition from the Middle East and far beyond, looks like a net gain for the right-wing Israeli leader and his supporters. Perhaps Netanyahu could simply not believe his luck!
But the symbolism and propaganda value of Trump’s move are likely to be outweighed by dire consequences – primarily the damage it will do to the already slim hopes of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
In practical terms, Trump’s shift will have little effect even if it is followed by the transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv. The US already has a consulate in West Jerusalem, in a handsome stone 19th century building that is within the city’s pre-1967 “green line” borders. That is not considered occupied territory, unlike the eastern side of town which was annexed by Israel after its capture from Jordan in the Six-Day War.
Israel’s government ministries and parliament are based in Jerusalem, although they, crucially, make no distinction between the two sides of the city, which is routinely described as Israel’s “eternal and united capital”.
Reality is very different. Of a population of 860,000, 37 per cent are Palestinians who are defined as residents rather than citizens. Arabs and Jews lead largely separate and in some ways segregated lives. Palestinian neighbourhoods are isolated and often run-down enclaves surrounded by Jewish ones built over the last half-century in defiance of international law.
Violence is invariably portrayed as legitimate resistance to occupation by Palestinians and terrorism by Israelis. Tensions often run high over the city’s Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy places – especially the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound in the heart of the Ottoman-walled old city.
In 2000, after the failure of the Camp David peace talks convened by Bill Clinton, a provocative walkabout by the hawkish Israeli minister Ariel Sharon was the spark that ignited the second Palestinian intifada. That had devastating consequences in terms of human life, suffering and the death of any hopes for political movement.
Last July, serious protests erupted again after Israeli Arab gunmen killed two policemen and the authorities installed metal detectors outside the Al-Aqsa mosque in a way that was interpreted as breaching the ever-delicate status quo. Three Jewish settlers were then murdered by a Palestinian. Jerusalem is a tinderbox. If it is ignited the fire can blaze far beyond the contested city’s limits.
Even if Trump offers assurances about respecting the holy places, that is unlikely to assuage anger across the Muslim world – whether genuine or manufactured. Washington may assume that Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies are more concerned these days with the challenge from Shia Iran than with the fate of the Palestinians. But in the words of the American scholar Shibley Telhami, “Jerusalem is the perfect issue for Iran and Islamist militants to use to mobilize support against the United States and those who endorse its policies”.
Israelis’ yearning for the recognition of Jerusalem as their capital appears to reflect a wider anxiety about legitimacy. In that spirit Netanyahu has demanded the PLO recognise Israel explicitly as a “Jewish state”, ignoring the fact that it formally recognised Israel in the Oslo Accords of 1993. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, says that Israel is free to define itself as it wishes. Opposition to such recognition is designed to protect Israel’s own Palestinian minority – 20 per cent of the population – and to defend the hallowed “right of return” claimed by Palestinian refugees.
Trump’s decision on Jerusalem is all the more galling because Netanyahu does not support a two-state solution, or at least as that term is understood internationally. In recent times Netanyahu’s most definitive pronouncement is that he will accept a “state-minus” – whatever that means. Other ministers in his cabinet explicitly oppose Palestinian statehood and call for the annexation of the West Bank, now home to hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers.
Even before this episode the chances of progress towards peace already ranged from the very slight to the non-existent. Trump has boasted of making the “deal of the century” but this recognition openly favours Israel and ignores long-standing and widely-supported Palestinian demands for an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
It appears both biased and destructive. It has aroused furious controversy and threatens to unleash violence – risks, perhaps, that might be worth taking if something positive was likely to emerge at the end. Yet no advantage is visible in this move. Palestinians have already scheduled three “days of rage”. People of goodwill may want to follow the scriptural advice – literally or metaphorically – and pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
Ian Black is a visiting senior fellow at the Middle East Centre, LSE and the author of Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017