'Hands Off Jerusalem'

On the 6th of December 2017, President Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and stated that the American embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This marked a shift away from nearly seven decades of American neutrality on the matter. President Trump explicitly stated his support for maintaining the status quo at the holy sites within the Old City.

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Trump’s “deal of the century” to resolve the historic Arab-Israeli conflict it is said may include “Arab normalization of Israel in exchange for direct negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis under American auspices, or the exchange of Arab-Israeli land in the framework of the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

What is the Status of Jerusalem?
After World War I, the city of Jerusalem came under the administration of the United Kingdom through a League of Nations’ mandate on Palestine. At the end of World War II, given the British intention to give up the mandate and withdraw from Palestine, the United Nations undertook to provide a future solution for the region and for Jerusalem itself. Meanwhile, the United States of America had declared its unequivocal support for Israel which was a gamechanger to all intents and purposes as far as the future map of the region was concerned.

The consequences of the inaugural Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948 culminated I the division of the city into two: Israel occupied what is no known as Western part and Jordan maintained its influence on the eastern sector. In 1949, the Knesset then adopted a resolution declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel. The Israelis by this point had moved most government institutions and the parliament (the Knesset) from Tel Aviv to Western Jerusalem. Then in June 1967, Israel had captured East Jerusalem and the consequences of this enabled her to extend her rule over the entire city including the administration and judiciary.  

The UN Security Council (UNSC) with support from the international community passed Resolution 252 in May 1968 and made the following declaration. The resolution stated that the acquisition of territory by military conquest is “inadmissible,” declared that all actions taken by Israel to change the status of Jerusalem are invalid, and called upon Israel to rescind measures already taken.

In July 1980, the Knesset passed a constitutional act according to which Jerusalem, complete and united” according to the text, was to be the capital of Israel and the seat of its president, government, parliament and Supreme Court. In response, the UNSC in August 1980 adopted Resolution 478, In 1993, with the assistance of the United States, representatives of Israel and of the Palestinian people agreed that the status of Jerusalem is a core issue that is to be addressed bilaterally in permanent status negotiations. Subsequently, both President George W. Bush and President Obama sought to assist the parties in establishing negotiations on all outstanding issues, including Jerusalem’s status.

In 1995, The United States provided overwhelming tacit support for Israel with the twin aim of  planning for the fragmentation of the Middle East and using the Congressional cog which then passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, that declared  “Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel.”. The bill also stated that the American embassy should move to Jerusalem within five years. From 1998 to June 2017, the relocation of the embassy from Tel Aviv was suspended by the sitting President semi-annually, based on national security concerns as provided for in section 7 of the Act.
Trump’s declaration last month should be analyzed in light of the same act passed by Congress with overwhelming support and enacted into law in the same year. However, Donald Trump said that the United States would officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. and would pursue plans to build a new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem during his election campaign. It should be said that Trump has certainly fulfilled his election promise early into his presidency.

Section 7 makes for interesting reading in that it afforded the president to suspend the limitation set forth in section 3(b) for a period of six months if he determines and reports to Congress in advance that such suspension is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States.

Furthermore, section 7 in turn indicates that, where the restrictions imposed by section 3(b) are waived, they should be applied to the following fiscal year, unless there is a subsequent waiver for that year. this will allow the president to “waive the legislation if it would have dire consequences on the peace process and if there are an important problem they can suspend the limitation on State Department construction if he believes it is necessary to protect [U.S.] national security interests in the event of an emergency or unforeseen change in circumstances” and not as permitting “the President to negate the legislation simply on the grounds that he disagrees with the policy.” but that situation maybe change  for at least another six months.  The implications of this waiver authority paved the way for the Trump administration from voluntarily seeking to relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, without the outside threat of any legal sanctions if it chose not to do so.

What to watch for
After Trump’s statement, Benjamin Netanyahu called the announcement a “historic landmark” and praised the decision as “courageous and just”. During his remarks Netanyahu said there is “no peace that doesn’t include Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel”, adding that the ‘eternal city’ has “been the capital of Israel for nearly 70 years”.

On 9 December Turkey announced that that President Erdogan would be working with French president Emmanuel Macron in a joint effort to persuade the United States to reconsider its decision as the change in policy was like “throwing the region into a ring of fire”.

On December 10th, The Arab League held an emergency meeting in Cairo. After the meeting, the League’s Secretary-General, Ahmed Aboul-Gheit issued a statement saying the change in US policy was “against international law and “amounts to the legalization” of Israeli occupation. Gheit also questioned US commitment to the peace process and cast doubt on its role as a honest broker.

Just this month, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini emphasized that Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem was considered a violation of international law under the1980 United Nations Security Council resolution and all governments of EU member states were united on the issue of Jerusalem, and reaffirmed their commitment to a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital. 

King Salman of Saudi Arabia said that moving the American embassy to Jerusalem would be a “flagrant provocation” to Muslims. Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi both expressed similar concerns about the viability of the peace process. The Jordanian government said Trump had violated international law and the UN charter as a whole.

Predicting the Trump administration’s next move regarding the U.S. Embassy in Israel is going to be difficult. The worst-case scenario would be if Trump makes a decision on short notice and announces the establishment of an embassy in Jerusalem without any diplomatic groundwork being laid. The ensuing scenario, could result in a loud reaction throughout the Arab world. Popular reactions to such a decision could result in widespread protests and even violence, raising the prospect of World War III in the offing.

Furthermore, the Trump administration maybe using the embassy move as part of a larger strategy, most likely related to the advancement of the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that some of President Trump’s closest advisors are reportedly working on. If this is in the offing then they should make an official announcement preceded by intense diplomatic engagement involving all sides to prepare the ground and build support for the proposal being put forward. Moreover, success even at this juncture is not guaranteed due to several reasons. Relocating the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is likely to be accompanied by assurances and concessions intended to assuage Palestinian and Arab concerns, most likely relating to Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem, and the most critical issue the realization of Palestinian statehood, access to and control of the holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City, Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and certain other recurring issues. 

Finally, the other scenario is that Trump may once again exercise his waiver authority and decline to announce any change in the U.S. Embassy’s location. If this occurs, it is likely a sign that someone has persuaded the president that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a real possibility and sudden changes could harm its prospects or have other unintended regional ramifications. The world waits in hope that another global conflict of epic proportions is not on the horizon and the Muslim community is in unison in shouting ‘Hands off Jerusalem’.

By Miral Alashry 
Assistant Professor Canadian International College (CIC)   
Department of Journalism