Throughout his presidential campaign, President Trump promised that when elected, he would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem despite both international pressure and domestic precedent opposed to such a move. Since being elected, his stance has changed several times on the issue; this week, however, he made the official announcement that the United States a) recognizes Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel, and b) will move the embassy from Tel Aviv (where it is currently located) to Jerusalem.
Why is the move controversial? What are the immediate reactions? And what does this announcement mean for future international relations, particularly within the Middle East?
Jerusalem is probably one of the most, if not the most, contested lands in the world. It is a holy city for Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and thus control over the land has been the cause of conflict and war for millennia. The Jewish people have considered it to be the spiritual capital for 3000 years and, more recently, the political capital of the Jewish State for several decades. Yet although Israel declared Jerusalem as its capital city in a 1950 Knesset vote, many countries – as well as IGOs such as the United Nations and the European Union – decline to recognize Jerusalem as the de jure capital. This has clear implications on the international legitimacy of Israel, as its jurisdiction over its own self-proclaimed capital is disputed. It is a very unique situation that a country declares a city to be its capital city and other countries deny this fact; one might question why foreign states have a say in what the capital of Israel is, yet this is the reality in which we are living.
In 1995, the United States Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in order to begin “initiating and funding the relocation of the Embassy of the United States in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, no later than May 31, 1999,” as well as recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. However, each US president (including Trump) has signed a waiver declining to implement it on the grounds that the Act is a “Congressional infringement on the executive branch’s constitutional authority over foreign policy.” As a result, the US has effectively refrained from making a definitive statement on Israel’s jurisdiction over Jerusalem – until today.
Both Israelis and Palestinians want Jerusalem as the capital of their respective sovereign nation. As such, the issue of jurisdiction over the holy city is one of the most contentious negotiation topics in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Refusing to acknowledge Israel’s right to Jerusalem as its capital allows states to remain “neutral” and thus maintain relations with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Even those countries which do recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel have their embassies in Tel Aviv in order to avoid conflict. Though this may seem trivial, the symbolic meaning is anything but. All around the world, foreign embassies are located in the respective country’s capital city. Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without treating it as such is only a surface-level show of solidarity, and does not truly support Israel’s right to self-determination. However, due to the tensions surrounding Jerusalem, no country chooses to house its embassy there. Doing so would send the message that control over Jerusalem, one of the major points of conflict in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, is undeniably and nonnegotiably Israel’s.
Even before Washington made the official announcement to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy, the United States faced both domestic and international backlash. Now that President Trump has publicly declared the intended policy change, opponents accuse him of upending decades-long political precedent in the US and throwing the Middle East into unknown turmoil, while supporters are saying, “Well, it’s about time.”
The United States historically has been one of the main mediators in Arab-Israeli negotiations (for example, the Camp David Accords, Oslo Accords, Camp David Summit, and Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty were all either mediated by or signed in Washington). Publicly recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel necessarily establishes a bias in favor of Israel in the event of future negotiations, should the US continue to mediate these talks. As a result, many Palestinians, Arabs, and other supporters of Palestinian self-determination oppose Trump’s recent announcement as it could create further challenges in the peace process to come.
Most of these challenges stem from the United States’ reputation in the region. Washington may no longer be viewed as a neutral party, causing possibly irreparable damage to relations in the region. Furthermore, it perpetuates the narrative that “the US is at war with Islam and has no respect for Muslim and Arab perspectives.” In a region already experiencing backlash to globalization and Western cultural imperialism, the implications of Trump’s announcement may damage cultural relations in addition to political ones.
The announcement additionally is expected to increase violence and extremism in the region. Senior Palestinian Authority advisor Mahmoud Al-Habbash announced, with PA President Mahmoud Abbas by his side, that Trump’s announcement “would mean total destruction of the peace process… The whole world will pay a price for any change or harm to the political reality of Jerusalem.” Hamas additionally called for a revival of the intifada should Washington follow through on its plans.
Yet many Jews – both in Israel and the diaspora – do not see the significance of this announcement. Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for 3000 years; Washington’s decision to declare its support changes nothing, and nor does the refusal of other states to make the same recognition. Jerusalem always has been and always will be the spiritual capital of the Jewish nation, and no government has the ability to take this away. However, we cannot ignore the inevitable political implications, both short-term and long-term, that the United States’ policy change will have. It is only a matter of time before we begin to see what these effects will be.