President Donald Trump has expressed a vehement pro-Israeli stance throughout his campaign and is expected to play a large role in the future of both Israel and Palestine. He has said multiple times that he plans to move the U.S embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a task that former presidents have all failed to achieve. If Trump is serious about his plans it would mark a change in over fifty years of U.S foreign policy towards Israel and could lead to U.S isolation from international diplomatic efforts and a strong escalation of violence in the region.
U.S-Israeli relations haven’t been in the best shape over the past few years under the Obama Administration. Obama routinely and strongly warned Israel to freeze settlement expansion while attempting to create a stronger bond between the U.S and the Palestinian community. However, tensions have risen even more since the U.S abstained from voting on the U.N Security Council Resolution 2334 which ruled Israeli settlements in occupied territory as having “no legal validity.” This decision greatly angered Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu but Trump tweeted shortly after saying that things would be different after January 20, indicating his intent to reverse or ignore the resolution.
As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2016
A more immediate issue, however, seems to be that of Trump’s plan to move the U.S embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. At first, most people didn’t take his comments seriously and called it bluff to get more votes. However, as time has gone by, he has made clear that he is serious about this plan and Israeli officials are also taking him on his word. If Trump does go through with this plan he would be breaking with over fifty years of U.S foreign policy throughout which U.S administrations have maintained that the final status of Jerusalem should be resolved in negotiations. The U.S has never had an embassy in Jerusalem; most foreign nations keep their embassies in nearby Tel Aviv, including the U.S. since 1966. Today, 86 countries have embassies in Tel Aviv while none have any in Jerusalem.
To truly understand the severity of such an action it’s important to put this situation in its historical context. Jerusalem is considered a holy city to Christians, Jews, and Muslims as they all have important religious sites situated in the city. The city has been fought over for the past 3,000 years and it remains a disputed city today, divided between the occupied Palestinian villages and refugee camps in the east and the Jewish neighborhoods in the west. In 1980 Israel passed a law which declared that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” The law was later amended to state that Jerusalem’s boundaries were those from after the 1967 war, which was when Israel began occupying East Jerusalem. The United Nations Security Council then responded with a resolution condemning Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and declared it a violation of international law, but despite this Israel continues to build in the occupied territories.
Israel sees Jerusalem as its “eternal capital” and has been wanting it to be internationally recognized as such for a long time. The U.S embassy was actually supposed to be moved to Jerusalem since 1995, but every president since then has signed an executive order every six months signaling they can’t authorize the move due to national security concerns. Former president Obama had renewed the presidential waiver until the beginning of June and it remains unclear if Trump can legally override the waiver and relocate the embassy before that time. The Palestinians have repeatedly called the potential embassy move “a red line” that would destroy hopes for a two-state solution with the Israelis. In 2002, Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Authority at the time, ratified a law that proclaimed Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Palestine. Palestinians see the city as the future capital of their state and would undoubtedly retaliate against Israel if the U.S recognizes the city as the Israeli capital.
Most Israelis are optimistic about the Trump presidency and believe he will be able to repair US-Israeli relations and help them pursue their expansionist goals. Trump has previously said that he does not see Israeli settlements as illegal and also doesn’t believe it’s an obstacle for peace. Trump’s pick as U.S ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, does not support the two-state solution and recently announced that he would be settling in Jerusalem. At an October Trump rally in Israel, Friedman weighed in on the plan to move the embassy to Jerusalem and stated that if State Department employees refuse to move the embassy, they would be fired. President Trump is also hoping that his son-in-law Jared Kushner will play a role in the Israel-Palestine conflict and even believes he could be the key to solving the decades-long issue. However, this remains to be seen as the world’s best diplomats have been unable to solve this problem and Kushner has never had any such experience before.
The U.S already has a representative in Jerusalem, the Consulate General, who has been the de facto representative of the U.S to the Palestinian authority for over twenty years. If a U.S embassy would be opened in Jerusalem it would be situated in the West. Israel would see the move of the embassy as a welcome gift for the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War of 1967, which resulted in Israel occupying East Jerusalem. Even though the embassy move is on Trump’s agenda, it is unclear how much priority it has. Israeli officials said the embassy move was barely discussed during a phone call between president Trump and prime minister Netanyahu on Sunday. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer also made it seem as though the plan might take a while, he said: “We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing the subject.”
Even though many allies are against a potential embassy move and see Israeli settlements as strictly illegal, there is one ally that leans more towards the American view of Israel-Palestine issues. The United Kingdom blocked foreign ministers’ adoption of the Paris conference’s joint declaration which called on the sides to commit to a two-state solution and renounce violence. The Paris conference for peace in the Middle East took place on January 15 and led to the signing of this declaration by 70 delegations from around the world. One senior Israeli diplomat commented: “We continue to oppose the conference and its conclusions, but as a reference paper, which we couldn’t block, it is a text we can live with.” This declaration shows the persistence of the majority of the international community to fight for a two-state solution, prevent further illegal Israeli settlements, and negotiate a fair peace agreement as soon as possible.
The U.S faces many challenges if they choose to move the embassy to Jerusalem. If the embassy were to be relocated it would mean that the U.S officially recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, thus automatically taking Israel’s side when it comes to the conflict with Palestine. This would be especially imprudent because the U.S has always been one of the most important mediators in the conflict. The Obama administration had opposed the embassy move with John Kerry even warning of “an absolute explosion” in the Middle East if it happens.
The Palestinians wouldn’t be the only group to worry about after such an action; it is probable that neighboring Arab states would condemn the move and take measures into their own hands. Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab countries with peace treaties with Israel, have warned against the move and said that it could be explosive for the region. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is taking the issue very seriously and met with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Sunday to discuss the potential move and what steps they would take if it were to happen. Meanwhile, the Palestinian people have already taken to the streets to urge the U.S to rethink their plan.
Moving the embassy to Jerusalem without acknowledging Palestinian claims to the city or the importance of it to the Muslim faith would not only isolate the U.S diplomatically but would most likely lead to even more violence breaking out in the region. Philip Wilcox, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem from 1988 to 1991, said that the only thing the U.S would accomplish with such a move would be pleasing the Israeli right wing. Abbas also made it clear that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) could revoke its recognition of the state of Israel and cancel all agreements between Israelis and Palestinians as a result of the embassy move; an action that would likely end all chances of achieving a two-state solution. Jordan’s minister of information, Mohammed al-Momani said that the potential move would have “catastrophic consequences,” and that it could inflame religious passions and rally extremists in the region.
Despite all of the controversies, the Israeli government seems to be acting bolder by the day. They are not taking UNSC 2334 seriously and have shown their resilience by approving more settlements to be built in East Jerusalem. The Israeli government approved the building of 566 new housing units last week, thus ignoring the agreements the international community had come to at the Paris conference. Israel is trying to swallow up East Jerusalem by building as much as they can until they make it a de facto part of Israel. Netanyahu recently pledged “unrestricted” building in East Jerusalem and has so far kept his word. On Tuesday, Israel approved the construction of 2,500 housing units for Jews in West Bank settlements, yet another slap in the face to those who attended the conference. These actions show Israel’s optimism and newly found confidence thanks to the new American presidential administration as they don’t seem to feel as restrained as when Obama was in office. The Palestinian side was quick to react: “Once again, the Israeli government has proved that it is more committed to land theft and colonialism than to the two-state solution and the requirements for peace and stability,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee.
Donald Trump has shown interest in negotiating for peace and he even called an Israeli-Palestinian agreement “the ultimate deal.” If he truly does want to achieve peace, a task that all presidents before him have failed to succeed in, he would have to give both states something they want. A big issue is that the U.S recognizes the state of Israel, but not Palestine. Without changing this, it is very unlikely that the Palestinian people and neighboring Arab states would take U.S policies in the region seriously; it could even lead them to take retaliative measures. Recognition of the state of Palestine is crucial for the two-state solution to work. The issue of Jerusalem can also be resolved if an agreement is reached for both states to have their capitals in the city; Israel in the West and Palestine in the East.
However, given president Trump’s position on Israel and his choice for ambassador, it is unlikely such concessions will take place. The international community will have to continue applying pressure on U.S diplomats to work towards a two-state solution. If the Trump Administration does not take all the controversies regarding Jerusalem seriously, they might be seeing yet another war break out in the Middle East, on their watch, again.