Jonathan Freedland* – The Guardian
The US president’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel turns a naked flame on the single most combustible issue in the conflict
Not content with taking the US to the brink of nuclear conflict with North Korea, Donald Trump is now set to apply his strategy of international vandalism to perhaps the most sensitive geopolitical hotspot in the world. With a speech scheduled for later today that’s expected to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and reaffirm a pledge to move the US embassy to the city, he is walking into a bone-dry forest with a naked flame.
For the status of Jerusalem is the most intractable issue in what is often described as the world’s most intractable conflict. It is the issue that has foiled multiple efforts at peacemaking over several decades. Both Israelis and Palestinians insist that Jerusalem must be the capital of their states, present and future, and that that status is non-negotiable.
But it’s not just important to them. The Old City of Jerusalem contains the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest mosque in Islam, to say nothing of its enormous significance to Christians, meaning that even the slightest move there is felt by billions. It is a place where diplomats have learned to tread with extreme care. There is a reason why no US administration, no matter how pro-Israel, has changed its policy toward the city in the nearly 70 years since Israel’s founding.
But here comes Trump, oblivious to precedent and indeed history – even in a place where history is a matter of life and death – stomping through this delicate thicket, trampling over every sensitivity. The risk is obvious, with every Arab government – including those loyal to Washington – now issuing sharp warnings on the perils of this move, almost all of them using the same word: “dangerous”.
Let us be clear. Most advocates of an eventual two-state solution believe the only way to resolve the Jerusalem issue is for it to serve as the capital of both states: East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Then, and only then, would be the right moment to start moving embassies and issuing statements of recognition. Until that day, any act that pre-empts an agreement between the two parties on the city’s future is reckless and needlessly incendiary.
How incendiary? Recall that the second intifada – which turned into a bloody two or more years of death for Israelis at the hands of Palestinian suicide bombers, and death for Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli military – started after a 45-minute visit in late 2000 by the then leader of the Israeli opposition, Ariel Sharon, to the place that represents the nuclear core of this most radioactive conflict, the site Muslims call the Haram al-Sharif and Jews call the Temple Mount. Bear that in mind when you hear the Palestinian ambassador to London say that Trump’s move amounts to “declaring war on 1.5 billion Muslims”.
Why is Trump doing it? Perhaps he wants to show that he’s honouring his campaign pledges: now, along with his tax cut for the rich and his travel ban from mainly Muslim countries, he can tick the box marked Jerusalem. He said he would do it, and now he’s doing it, and to hell with the consequences. That’s a style of politics his base – including those Christian evangelicals hawkish on Israel – seems to like.
The rest of the world will draw some comfort from the fact that no immediate move of the embassy is imminent; that it may not even happen before Trump’s term expires in January 2021. Perhaps this will be like Trump’s break from the Paris accords on climate change – more symbolic than concrete.
But that is to forget that in the Israel-Palestine conflict, symbols matter. Which is why other world leaders, and senior US politicians, need to close ranks in saying this act is wrong and does not speak for them. They need to signal that a saner policy might prevail once Trump has gone. The trouble is that by then, given the way violence in that region can spread and escalate, it might be too late.
*Jonathan Freedland is a weekly columnist and writer for the Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and presents BBC Radio 4’s contemporary history series, The Long View. In 2014 he was awarded the Orwell special prize for journalism. He has also published eight books including six bestselling thrillers, the latest being The 3rd Woman.
Defiant Trump confirms US will recognise Jerusalem as capital of Israel
Julian Borger in Washington and Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem – The Guardian
–‘My announcement marks the beginning of a new approach to the conflict’
–Critics including the pope say Trump’s decision likely to inflame tensions
Donald Trump has defied overwhelming global opposition by declaring US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but insisted that the highly controversial move would not derail his own administration’s bid to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In remarks delivered in the diplomatic reception room of the White House, Trump called his decision “a long overdue” step to advance the peace process.
“I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Trump said. “While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering.”
Trump said: “All challenges demand new approaches. My announcement today marks the beginning of a new approach to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
The president said that the US remained committed to a two-state solution as long as the Israelis and Palestinians were, and insisted that he was not dictating how much of Jerusalem should constitute Israel’s capital – leaving option the possibility that East Jerusalem would be the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Trump said “we are not taking a position on any final status issues” of which the fate of the holy city is one of the most emotive, and that it would be up to Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate boundaries.
“The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides. I intend to do everything in my power to help forge such an agreement.”
He went on: “There will of course be disagreement and dissent regarding this announcement – but we are confident that ultimately, as we work through these disagreements, we will arrive at a place of greater understanding and cooperation.”
White House officials have said that there would be no immediate move of the US embassy, as it would take at least three years to plan and build new facilities in Jerusalem.
Of all the issues at the heart of the enduring conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, none is as sensitive as the status of Jerusalem. The holy city has been at the centre of peace-making efforts for decades.
Seventy years ago, when the UN voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, Jerusalem was defined as a separate entity under international supervision. In the war of 1948 it was divided, like Berlin in the cold war, into western and eastern sectors under Israeli and Jordanian control respectively. Nineteen years later, in June 1967, Israel captured the eastern side, expanded the city’s boundaries and annexed it – an act that was never recognised internationally.
Israel routinely describes the city, with its Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy places, as its “united and eternal” capital. For their part, the Palestinians say East Jerusalem must be the capital of a future independent Palestinian state. The unequivocal international view, accepted by all previous US administrations, is that the city’s status must be addressed in peace negotiations.
Any move to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would put the US out of step with the rest of the world, and legitimise Israeli settlement-building in the east considered illegal under international law.
Meanwhile, the embassy will remain in Tel Aviv and Trump would continue to sign six-monthly waivers to the Jerusalem embassy act of 1995, in which Congress demanded an immediate move and threatened to take punitive measures against the state department’s budget until it was carried out.
Trump’s decision has been denounced around the world as a destabilising move in an already tense and turbulent region. A Palestinian envoy called it a “declaration of war” and protests are planned in the Palestinian territories.
Pope Francis has called for Jerusalem’s “status quo” – by which it has been treated as a special territory outside state sovereignty – to be respected, warning that it could further inflame world conflicts. China and Russia also expressed concern the plans could aggravate Middle East hostilities.
Israel’s government rushed to congratulate Trump for the speech. President Reuven Rivlin said: “The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the relocation of all embassies to the city, is a landmark in the recognition of the right of the Jewish people to our land, and a milestone on our road to peace – peace for all the residents of Jerusalem, and the whole region.”
But in a social club in the heart of Jerusalem’s Shuafat refugee camp, young Palestinian men grew increasingly angry as they watched the speech.
“This is shit. This is shit,” a man called Abu Atya told the Guardian in English. “He’s just said Jerusalem is the capital of Israel! This speech is going to cause big trouble.”
Another man, Hamdi Dyab, grew incredulous and increasingly agitated as he watched the speech, translated into Arabic on a Palestinian television channel.
“He’s saying he’s going to move the embassy,” he said. “This is very dangerous speech. Things don’t look good. We are calling for a new intifada.”
Earlier, Sheikh Abdullah al-Qam, the coordinator of a Jerusalem committee representing Palestinian factions in east Jerusalem – and a leader during the first intifada – also delivered a stark warning.
“This will harm America because they present themselves as fair broker between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said. “This will only encourage extremism. It will encourage Isis. Over one billion Muslims are asking why he is taking this step.”
Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, has been talking to Middle East leaders over the past 10 months, with the aim of putting together a new peace plan early next year. Kushner is known to beclose to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, who has also sought to break with precedent and tradition in his country’s foreign policy.
It remains unclear how far Prince Salman is ready to go to break with traditional Saudi policy of support for Palestinian aspirations of an independent state with a capital in East Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem decision divided the Trump administration, with Vice-President Mike Pence and the US ambassador to Israel arguing for the move, and the secretaries of defence and state, James Mattis and Rex Tillerson fighting a rearguard action against it because of its potential disruptive impact. Trump is reported to have decided to go ahead to fulfil an election campaign promise and satisfy his core support among evangelical and conservative Christians.
At present, 86 countries have embassies in Tel Aviv, none in Jerusalem.