Tel Aviv Diary: Will the Jerusalem Decision Boomerang?

Yesterday, President Donald J. Trump announced that the United States accepts the prevailing reality and officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel.

He also issued a directive to the State Department to begin plans to move the Embassy of the United States from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

(This is a process that will take many years, since a fitting site for the embassy must be identified, Congress called upon to allocate the money and the building must be constructed to strict specifications, a process that will take at least four years.)

Trump maintained that the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital does not impact any long term future peace agreement, as the US accepts that the borders of Jerusalem are disputed.

In addition, senior Trump administration officials on Tuesday night said that moving the US embassy should not impact the status quo of the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif.

If this presidential proclamation about the embassy move was about almost any other subject, we would all deem the pronouncement a non-decision. There is unlikely to be any immediate impact on the ground.

In fact, when a reporter asked the administration official giving the Tuesday briefing why the US would not simply change the sign on one of the two US Consulates currently operating in Jerusalem and call that the embassy, the official evaded the question by saying it takes many years of planning to establish an embassy and provide for its proper security needs, etc.

That being said, a determination regarding Jerusalem is not like any other decision. Jordan and the Palestinians have already called for a special meeting of the Arab League to respond to the US declaration and declared "three days of rage."  

GettyImages-826334716 An Israeli border policewoman holds her weapon while checking the ID of Palestinians on their way to Friday noon prayer at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's old city on August 4, 2017. HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey has called for a summit of the Pan Islamic nations in response.

Subsequently, acts of violence directed at either Israelis or Americans may, or may not, occur in Israel, the West Bank, or other places in the world.

American officials hope the outrage will be short lived. Perhaps they are correct.

However, when it comes to Jerusalem, no rational arguments suffice.

The first large-scale riots, followed by the massacre of Jews in Palestine, took place in 1929 over the placement of a partition at the Western Wall by Jews, (an act which was seen as upsetting the status quo).

The second intifada, which claimed over 1,000 Israeli lives, was set-off by a visit to the Temple Mount by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon.

Finally, the wave of stabbing attacks in 2015-2016 was set-off by false rumors that Israel was planning to take over the Temple Mount.

Administration officials who briefed reporters Tuesday were at a loss to answer the central question repeatedly asked by the press: What US security, diplomatic or economic interests is the embassy move meant to further at the moment, that would justify taking this risk?

The only answer was: It is time to recognize a historic reality.

So what is the “historic reality”?

I will not go back to the time of King David and Jesus, and instead will jump straight to the 20th century.

When the British captured Palestine from the Ottoman Empire in 1917, they found a city that had been largely neglected. Of course, it had been the destination of Christian pilgrims, religious Jews, and Muslims (to a much smaller extent) for centuries.

A mere two decades earlier, Jerusalem had begun to be expanded beyond the confines of the old walled city. Meanwhile, a new city was beginning to grow beside the Mediterranean. Founded just eight years earlier, Tel Aviv rapidly became the symbol of the growing Jewish population in Palestine.

The British established their administrative control of Palestine in Jerusalem. While the Zionist enterprise in Palestine rapidly grew, with British support, Tel Aviv became the location of most of the national institutions and almost all of the industrial and commerce activities.

The UN resolution of 1947 calling for the establishment of both a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine drew the borders between the Jordan River and the sea into two states — by-and-large trying to include the existing Jewish populations in the Jewish state and the residing Arab populations in the Arab state. The largely uninhabited Negev desert was allocated to the Jewish state.

The problem of what to do with holy city of Jerusalem was resolved by declaring it an international city. The Jews of Palestine accepted the UN Partition Plan, while the Arabs did not.

In the period between the UN Partition resolution on November 29 1947 and British final withdrawal on May 15 1948, a war took place between Jews and Arabs in Palestine — with the better organized Jewish forces winning.

When the British withdrew, the State of Israel was declared by the Jews. The surrounding Arab states invaded, vowing to destroy the state before it could be born.

The Truman administration rapidly recognized the new state, giving it international legitimacy. During the war that ensued, Israeli forces were largely successful on most fronts, with two major exceptions — those being the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, which was captured by the Jordanian Legion, and the Jewish settlement bloc to the South of Jerusalem, called “Gush Etzion”.

The war ended not with peace but with an armistice agreement. But that armistice did not settle Israel’s borders. In fact, in early December 1949, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling for Jerusalem to be placed under international trusteeship. Israel accepted the concept that the holy places should be under international supervision but rejected the demand that the whole city be so controlled.

Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion stated:

From the very first days of our provisional government, we made peace, security and economic consolidation of Jerusalem our principal care. Amidst the stress of war, when Jerusalem was under siege, we were compelled to establish the seat of the government in Hakiriya, near Tel Aviv.

For the state of Israel there always has been and always will be one capital only — Jerusalem, the eternal. So it was 3,000 years ago and so it will be, we believe, until the end of time.

Israel quickly moved its parliament to the divided Jerusalem.

The United States and the world never officially recognized Israeli sovereignty of the Western part of the city, and the Americans established their embassy in Tel Aviv.

During the 1967 Six Day War, Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem, as well as all of the West Bank, thereby reuniting Jerusalem and giving Jews access to the Western Wall for the first time since 1948.

Israel, however, decided to allow the Muslim Waqf (religious council funded by Jordan) to maintain responsibility for the Temple Mount, where the large Muslim Mosques are located.

During this whole period, a strange state of limbo existed. The Americans, and almost all other foreign governments, maintained their embassies in Tel Aviv — which indeed remained the vibrant cultural and economic center of the country. At the same time, foreign dignitaries and representatives had no problem meeting with Israeli officials in their offices in Jerusalem.

American Presidents, starting with Richard Nixon, did not stay in Tel Aviv when they visited Israel, but in Jerusalem, which Israel had determined to be its capital.

Even the late Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat, met with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in Jerusalem, when he came to Israel. And where did Sadat speak to the Israeli people? He spoke from the podium of the Knesset in Jerusalem.

Despite these events and milestones over decades, the American government has refused to recognize any part of Jerusalem as sovereign Israeli territory.

(On a personal note, both of my daughters were born in Jerusalem, as dual Israeli and American citizens. Both were born in areas that are not under dispute. Yet, when it came time to request their American passports, the American government officially refused to recognize the fact that they are Israelis, and in their passports, in the spot indicating “place of birth,” Jerusalem, not Israel, is listed.)

In 1995, the US Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which calls for the United States to move the Embassy to Jerusalem. However, the act contains a provision for the move to be postponed (in six month increments), if US security interests determine that decision to be preferable.

Such has been the case since 1995. Every six months, every President of the United States, whether Democrat or Republican, has deemed it in the security interests of the US to delay the decision.

So what has changed?

Why is it in America's interest to make this announcement, at this moment in time?

The reality is that the announcement serves no interest at all — neither for the United States, nor, for that matter, Israel. That is, no interest other than the political interests of the two principals.

Whatever criticism one can make of Trump, one cannot say he does not care about the campaign promises he made. He seems to be making the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem solely to show off that he keeps at least some of his campaign promises.

What role his largest donor, Sheldon Adelson, played in this decision is of course unknown.

As for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this move could be a double-edged sword.

On Wednesday morning, at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, Netanyahu boasted about the number of countries that now have ties with Israel; while warning, once again, about the one country that continues to call for Israel’s destruction — i.e., Iran.

It is not clear how American recognition of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem will help Israel deepen its ties to the rest of the world, or, more importantly, help contain Iran.

Without question, Trump’s action on Jerusalem will help Netanyahu justify his close embrace of Trump. Netanyahu can say, Look what a good friend of Israel Trump is. He did what no other American President has done.

However, many fear it is dangerous for Israel to be so closely identified with one of the most unpopular and divisive presidents in American history.

Ultimately, this act, unilaterally taken by Trump, might boomerang on Israel and endanger the very unified Jerusalem Israel seeks.
Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.
 

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