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Jerusalem Crisis escalates after Trump's recognition of the city as Israel's capital

Photo: Jgritz, Commons

On Wednesday, 6 December, US President Donald Trump has officially declared the disputed holy city of Jerusalem (al-Quds) as the capital of the State of Israel, and began the process moving his country's embassy to the city, despite objections from Palestinian leaders and warnings from around the world that the measure risks triggering a fresh wave of violence in the Middle East. In a speech at the White House, Trump said: "I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering."

He further ordered the State Department to begin the process of relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Previously, on 1 June, Trump signed the embassy waiver and stated that it did not represent a weakening of his support for Israel, adding that he stood by his promise of moving the embassy. After the newest move, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that the relocation process will begin immediately, however, the relocation itself could take years to be complete.

Global condemnation

Trump's move sparked global condemnation from world leaders. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned of the dangerous consequences such a decision would have to the peace process and to the peace, security and stability of the region and of the world. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh described Trump's decision as a flagrant aggression: "This decision is an uncalculated gamble that will know no limit to the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim reaction," he said. "We call on stopping this decision fully because this will usher in the beginning of a time of terrible transformations, not just on the Palestinian level but on the region as a whole. This decision means the official announcement of the end of the peace process."

Echoing Mahmoud Abbas' comments, King Abdullah II of Jordan told Trump that such a decision would have "dangerous repercussions on the stability and security of the region." The king also warned the US president of the risks of any decision that ran counter to a final settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict based on the creation of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. "Jerusalem is the key to achieving peace and stability in the region and the world," the statement said, adding that an embassy move would inflame Muslim and Christian feelings. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi also cautioned Trump against "taking measures that would undermine the chances of peace in the Middle East." He affirmed the Egyptian position on preserving the legal status of Jerusalem within the framework of international references and relevant UN resolutions.

The Syrian foreign ministry said the move is the culmination of the crime of usurping Palestine and displacing the Palestinian people. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the US move is a sign of the enemy's incompetence and despair, stressing that Palestine will eventually be freed from occupation. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to cut diplomatic ties with Israel, and stated: "Jerusalem is a red line for Muslims. We implore the US once again: You cannot take this step." Pope Francis said in his weekly address that the status quo that governs al-Aqsa Mosque compound should be respected. Since 1994, Jordan has been the custodian of all Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem. China and Russia also expressed concern the plans could aggravate Middle East hostilities.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has "consistently warned against any unilateral action that would have the potential to undermine the two-state solution", said his spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric. Federica Mogherini, the EU top diplomat, said "any action that would undermine" peace efforts to create two separate states for the Israelis and the Palestinians "must absolutely be avoided." UK Prime Minister Theresa May condemned Trump's move as "unhelpful" for the peace process. Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's foreign minister, also warned that any US move to recognize Jerusalem "as the capital of Israel does not calm a conflict, rather it fuels it even more," and that such a move "would be a very dangerous development." He added that "it's in everyone's interest that this does not happen". As usual, only Israel praised Trump's recognition. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed it as "historic" and a "courageous and just decision."

Historical background

Jerusalem or al-Quds is one of the key issues in the Israeli–Palestinian peace process, as both Israelis and the Palestinians want it as their capital. Still, the international legal and diplomatic status of Jerusalem remains unresolved, and legal scholars disagree on how to resolve dispute about it under international law. Before the creation of the State of Israel, in 1947 the newly formed United Nations had voted on a partition plan to divide what was then British-Mandate Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. Although that partition map put Jerusalem within the boundaries of the envisaged Palestinian Arab state, it designated Jerusalem and Bethlehem as 'corpus separatum' under international rule. The special status was decided on the basis of Jerusalem's religious importance to all three Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

The UN plan failed due to disapproval on both sides, unilateral Israel's declaration of independence, and following war of 1948. The resulting conflict substantially redrew the map, as Israeli forces fought their way to Jerusalem and cleared much of the Palestinian population out of the coastal plain and the Galilee.  Whereas the original partition had allocated 55 percent of the territory to a Jewish state and 45 percent of it to a Palestinian Arab state, the war of 1948 put Israel in control of 78 percent of the territory. The remaining 22 percent, comprising Gaza and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), was now controlled by Egypt and Jordan respectively. Jerusalem remained a divided city, with the holy sites in the eastern part under Jordanian control. The international community continued to regard the city as having a distinct status.

The rough, hand-drawn lines on a map sketched by Israeli and Jordanian commanders in November of 1948, which later became the official 1949 Armistice Line, left parts of Jerusalem as a no-man's land, outside either Israeli and Jordanian control. Special arrangements were made for Mount Scopus, which lay in the Jordanian controlled zone, but was home to an Israel hospital and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The 1949 Armistice Line, also known as the Green Line, or more colloquially as "the 1967 borders," is often referred to in two-state negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. However, the war of June 1967 left Israel in control of the remaining 22 percent the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Israel then annexed East Jerusalem, redefining the municipal boundaries of the city to incorporate other West Bank towns and villages, making it the largest city in the country.

Despite the annexation, Palestinians in East Jerusalem were not granted citizenship of Israel in the way that those Palestinians who remained in the country after the 1948 war had been. Instead, East Jerusalem Palestinians were given "permanent resident" status, the same status as non-Jewish foreigners who moved to Israel. East Jerusalem Palestinians live under constant fear of their Jerusalem identifications being revoked if they cannot prove their residency. Since 1967, some 14,000 have suffered that fate.

Israeli Knesset passed the Jerusalem Law (as part of the country's Basic Law) in 1980, which states that "Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel." Still, UN Security Council Resolution 478, adopted by 14 votes to none, with an abstention from the US, declared the law "null and void," a violation of international law. Before 1980, a number of countries had their embassy in Jerusalem, including the Netherlands, Costa Rica and El Salvador, and the latter two were the last to move their embassies, joining the rest of the world in locating their embassies in Tel Aviv. Currently no foreign country today has an embassy in Jerusalem, and 86 of them have embassies in Tel Aviv.

Despite the international community (including Israel's closest ally the US) rejecting Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, twelve Israeli settlement blocs housing more than 200,000 Jewish settlers have been built on occupied land in the city since 1967. Today, roughly 850,000 people live in Jerusalem, 37% are Arab and 61% are Jewish. Of the city's Arab population, 96% is Muslim, and the other 4% is Christian. The vast majority of the Palestinian population lives in East Jerusalem. Although there are some mixed neighborhoods in Jerusalem where both Israelis and Arabs live, most of the neighborhoods are split.

Different positions

Basically, there are five different positions regarding the status of Jerusalem:

(1) Refusing to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a state, implying that Palestine is inseparable, including Jerusalem. A total of 31 United Nations member states  have not recognized Israel, or have suspended or cut diplomatic relations, but still many of them officially tend to adhere to the UN resolutions (point 3). One notable exception is the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose leaders have openly declared that occupying regime in Jerusalem must vanish from the page of times.

(2) 'Corpus separatum' in accordance with the 1947 UN Partition plan under which the city of Jerusalem was to be placed under an international regime, administered by the United Nations. The plan was adopted by the General Assembly with a two-thirds majority, although its implementation failed and it gradually lost international support. This idea was endorsed by the Holy See starting with pope Pius XII, and was later re-proposed during the papacies of John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II. The European Union currently views the status of Jerusalem as that of a 'corpus separatum' and continues to support the internationalization of city, but is also inclined toward point 3 taking into account the political and religious concerns of all parties involved.

(3) Proposal of Jerusalem as the capital of two states, Israel and Palestine. This idea is highly congruent with a two-state solution and involves dividing land based on the pre-1967 borders, including dividing the city. All Security Council Resolutions dating back to June 1976 supporting this solution were vetoed by the United States, thus repeatedly reaffirming Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. The idea has overwhelming support in the UN General Assembly since the mid-1970s, and is considered acceptable by the Palestinian National Authority. The PNA already declared East Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine and claimed that West Jerusalem is also subject to permanent status negotiations, but it has stated that it would be willing to consider making Jerusalem an open city.

(4) Accepting West Jerusalem as Israel's capital and rejecting basic Palestinian demands, a position endorsed by the United States, Taiwan, Vanuatu, and the Czech Republic.

(5) All-Zionist Jerusalem, an official Israeli position initiated by David Ben-Gurion in 1949, adopted by the Knesset's Jerusalem Law in 1980, and upheld by various Prime Ministers: Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. This Neo-Zionist idea revolves around recognition of whole Jerusalem (including occupied East Jerusalem) as Israel's capital, as well as its Judaization i.e. expanding illegal Israeli settlements and continuation of discriminatory policies against Palestinians. Currently, only Israel openly support this position.

Significance of Trump's move

The US has never had its embassy in Jerusalem, and for years US policy has been to avoid declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, as the Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital. It was argued that a unilateral decision would break with international consensus and prejudge an issue that was supposed to be left to negotiations. Historically, the United States considered it desirable to establish an international regime for the city (point 2), but gradually US position has shifted somewhere between points 4 and 5.

The US opposed Israel moving its capital from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem following Israel's declaration of Jerusalem as its capital in 1949, and later opposed Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem after the 1967 war. In 1990 the US Senate adopted a resolution "acknowledging Jerusalem as Israel's capital" and stating that it "strongly believes that Jerusalem must remain an undivided city." However, in 1991 US Secretary of State stated that the United States is "opposed to the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem and the extension of Israeli law on it and the extension of Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries." The US had viewed East Jerusalem as forming part of the West Bank, a territory under belligerent occupation.

Nevertheless, the subsequent Clinton Administration refused to characterize East Jerusalem as being under occupation and viewed it as a territory over which sovereignty was undefined. Vice President Al Gore stated that the US viewed "united Jerusalem" as the capital of Israel. In light of this designation, the US has since abstained from Security Council resolutions which use language which construes East Jerusalem as forming part of the West Bank. In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act which declared that Jerusalem should remain undivided and that it should be recognized as Israel's capital. Proponents said the US should respect Israel's choice of Jerusalem as its capital, and recognize it as such.

Every president since 1995 (Clinton, Bush and Obama) has declined to move the embassy, citing national security interests. Every six months, the president has used the presidential waiver to circumvent the embassy move. Trump also signed the embassy waiver on 1 June, but now everything has changed. Moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem could be simple in theory, considering there's already a US consulate in Jerusalem, but move represents something far beyond switching the names on the doors. Recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and moving embassy actually implies cementing Israeli sovereignty over the city and all Neo-Zionist policies (point 5).

The coordinated Israeli-American diplomatic offensive regarding Jerusalem has started a few months ago, beginning with pressure on UNESCO. In October 2016, this international cultural organization passed a resolution on East Jerusalem that condemned Israel for aggressions by Israeli police and soldiers and illegal measures against the freedom of worship and Muslims' access to their holy sites, while also recognizing Israel as the occupying power. Israel froze all ties with the organization, and two months ago the United States and Israel announced they would withdraw from the organization. Both of them, as well as their close Czech friends, invoked "antisemitism" to mobilize the public and justify the move.

This time their Czech friends jumped in again and few hours after Trump's speech in which he recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the Czech Republic said it also recognizes the pre-1967 West Jerusalem as the country's capital. Earlier, Czechs also supported the Israeli raid against the Gaza flotilla, expressed support for the classification of Hamas as a "terrorist organization," and their parliament refused to implement EU guidelines to label Israeli products originating from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, describing the rules as "antisemitic" or discrimination against "the only democracy in the Middle East".

Other 'friends' of such policies are even more miserable – Vanuatu, the small and poor Pacific country, has also recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel already in July. Israel and their American allies have a well-established tradition of engaging the little Pacific island nations for pursuing their own interests. For example, in November 2012 General Assembly resolution 67/19 passed, upgrading Palestine to "non-member observer state" status in the United Nations. Among nine votes against, four came from such small nations: the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau, and others from Israel, the USA, Canada, Panama, and (of course) the Czech Republic. Still, the dangerous domino effect has started and we should expect further pro-Israeli diplomatic pressures.

Filip Vuković

Filip Vuković is a Serbian politologist and investigative journalist from Belgrade, covering the western Balkan area for Serbian, English and Italian outlets. His focus is on nationalism, ethnic tensions and economic policy in the post-Yugoslav area. Currently, he is preparing a PhD dissertation at the University of Padua.