By: Meghan Howard
On Wednesday, December 6th, President Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, along with plans to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. While some might see this as a campaign promise fulfilled, it is a sharp change in U.S. foreign policy that could lead to further unrest in the region.
The controversy surrounding Jerusalem is nothing new, being one of the centerpieces of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The modern-day conflict has its roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the birth of major nationalist movements among the Jewish and the Palestinian people, both geared towards attaining sovereignty in the Middle East. Between 1896 and 1948, hundreds of thousands of Jews, including those forced out by the Holocaust, resettled from Europe and Russia to a British-controlled Palestine. Many Palestinians saw the influx of Jews as a European colonial movement, and the two groups did not get along. In 1947, the United Nations voted to split the land into two countries. Since then, a long and bloody conflict has ensued. Currently, about 850,000 people live in Jerusalem with 37% being Arab and 61% Jewish.
In July of 1980, Israel passed a law that declared Jerusalem its capital. The United Nations Security Council subsequently condemned this action and declared it a violation of international law. As of now, 86 countries have their embassies located in Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city and capital prior to the 1980 declaration. Zero foreign embassies remained in Jerusalem until the U.S.’s recent decision. Guatemala followed the U.S. announcement with the move of their embassy. Minister Sandra Jovel claimed that “there wasn’t any [U.S.] pressure” regarding this decision. In 1995, Congress passed the “Jerusalem Embassy Act”, formally recognizing the city as Israel’s capital with plans to move the Embassy from Tel Aviv by 1999. However, every U.S. President since, including Clinton, Bush, and Obama, has postponed the move every six months for 22 years, citing national security interests. Breaking from his predecessors, on December 6th, President Trump declared, “today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality.” He claims to have done what the other presidents “failed to deliver.”
The effects of Trump’s actions are majorly symbolic in nature, yet they will be felt well beyond the borders of Israel. Some argue these policies signal the end of efforts to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians. A deep mistrust between the two groups and a history of violence makes an ideal situation harder to grasp and attain. Still, furthered communication and understanding is necessary if the world wishes to look ahead to a peaceful future in this region.
The international community has had mixed reviews of the decision; however, there seems to be an overall negative reaction looming. Pope Francis commented, “I cannot silence my deep concern over the situation that has emerged in recent days. At the same time, I appeal strongly for all to respect the city’s status quo, in accordance with the relevant UN resolutions.” With this move, Trump has broken longstanding practices, overturning 70 years of international consensus. However, U.S Secretary of State Tillerson stands by this decision. After Trump spoke with various regional leaders, many of them, including Saudi Arabia’s King Solomon, warned against his actions, afraid of violent repercussion throughout the Middle East and Arab communities around the world. Days after the U.S.’s decision, violence and protests occurred in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
On Thursday, December 21st, The UN held a vote regarding a resolution to reject the Trump Administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said that the U.S. would remember which countries “disrespected” America by voting against it, threatening to cut aid spending. Despite this warning, 128 members voted in favor of the resolution. Only nine countries, including the United States and Israel, voted against it. While the vote is not legally binding, it is a considerable embarrassment for the U.S. and reflects global opinion. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said, “there is no more important symbol than an American Embassy.” Therefore, the risks correlating with the movement of an embassy run high. Trump’s disregard for such risks and ongoing negotiations complicates and threatens peace.