Moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem
How does one respond when an infamous fabulist makes a decision allegedly based on reality? Donald Trump is the most notorious fabulist of our time. He is not simply a serial liar, but a man who denies any basis for establishing the truth. For Donald, the only truth that exits is the one that you convince people to believe. “People will just believe you. You just tell them and they believe you.” These were Donald Trump’s words quoted by Bill Bush, the former host of “Access Hollywood” in The New York Times. As described in George Orwell’s 1984, the only truth in a totalitarian system is a lie. Telling the truth is the unforgivable sin in despotic systems of government.
Donald Trump announced his decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem in a press conference at 1:00 p.m. this afternoon in an 11-minute speech read on two monitors. He claimed that it was no longer possible “to ignore the reality on the ground.” He was recognizing the historical reality that Jerusalem has been the center of Jewish faith for thousands of years, and the reality today in which the government ministries, the Supreme Court and the central authorities are all located in the capital of Israel – Jerusalem. However, he was not pre-empting the conclusions of any peace negotiations. It was up to the Israelis and the Palestinians to decide together the respective borders in Jerusalem.
What about the Palestinians? What about their reality? There was no acknowledgement of Palestinian claims to sovereignty in Eastern Jerusalem or to the Old City.
Trump “recognizes reality.” As undisclosed sources in the White House had said yesterday: “He is not making a decision that will change the core issues that are to be discussed in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.” Reality also determined that the move would not be immediate. Hence the puzzling and distracting headlines leading up to the announcement: “Trump delays decision on embassy move.” “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” said White House spokesman Hogan Gidley last week, both when the actual announcement would be made and when the decision would be implemented. But the process would be set in motion and expected to be concluded about the time of the expiration of Trump’s first term in office.
Perhaps that was the greater reality – his legacy. Almost certainly the fulfillment of a promise he made in his campaign for the presidency was the major determinant. Certainly, the series of decisions the US Congress made in 1995 provided the legal and formal authority to make the move. But the foundation for the judgment was a claim on reality.
At the same time, President Trump announced that he would sign the waiver, as every president since 1995 has done. Only when the move was imminent would the waiver to delay the move for security concerns be set aside. Would that olive branch appease Palestinians, the Arab and the Muslim world more generally? Would marrying signing the waiver with the executive decision to move the embassy be considered a fake olive branch by both America’s allies in Europe and the many states of the Muslim world? Would the US formally endorsing the two-state solution for the first time be enough of a salve?
Though I have not yet heard the reaction of President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and understand that he is still in discussions with President Sisi of Egypt, allies and Muslim states alike unanimously declared that such a decision would be a disaster for the peace process and was bound to instigate rage and violence, not only in Palestine, but throughout the world, particularly in the Muslim world. That reality according to the critics should have kyboshed any such announcement.
Will such an announcement finally bury the peace process and, therefore the prospect of a two-state solution, or would it, as Trump declared, shake up that process and create more possibilities for a peace agreement to proceed from a new starting position? America remained committed to fostering peace between Israel and the Palestinians and he, Trump, would agree to a two-state solution if both parties agree. Further, and more significantly, America for the first time endorsed a two-state solution and committed itself to backing such a solution if both parties came to an agreement.
It is one thing to announce moving the US embassy in the immediately foreseeable future. It is another to make such a pronouncement in conjunction with recognizing Jerusalem – not West Jerusalem that Russia recognized (April 2017) – as the capital of Israel. And that was the most explosive part of this afternoon’s announcement however nuanced it was by insisting that such recognition made no presumptions about final borders or sovereignty. To repeat, it was just a recognition of reality according to the American president. Trump signed the waiver for an additional six-month delay in moving the embassy, but put in motion the process of moving the embassy.
Since he also declared that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, that announcement will almost certainly stir the Palestinians into a rage despite Trump labeling anyone who resorted to violence as a terrorist. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesperson for Mahmoud Abbas, Chair of the Palestinian Authority, warned: “Eastern Jerusalem will be the capital of a Palestinian state, and any change in the status quo or international recognition legitimizing the Israeli occupation will negate any possible just [and peaceful] solution.” Yet the PLO, when it declared Palestinian independence in 1988 conjoined with recognition of the two-state solution, also declared Jerusalem, not East Jerusalem, to be its capital, a decision ratified into law in 2000 and confirmed by Yasser Arafat in 2002.
For critics, Trump was not just playing with fire; he was accused of being a pyromaniac. On the other hand, what change had been made in legitimizing Israeli occupation?
The problem, as has been very widely recognized, is that this has been the one insurmountable obstacle to concluding the peace process. All of the other matters on the table – sharing water, even refugee return and even the swap in territory to solve the problem of Israeli settlements in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) – are resolvable. But Jerusalem is not. As Rudeineh stated, “East Jerusalem, with its holy places, is the beginning and the end of any solution and any project that saves the region from destruction.” If the claim on the Old City is the PA bottom line, and if this Israeli government, or virtually any conceivable Israeli government, cannot be imagined as making such a concession, how can there be a prospect of peace? If there was no prospect of a solution in any case, why delay moving the embassy and recognizing the reality of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?
Nor can one legitimately refer to any international authority to support either side. But an international consensus had been in place until now not to make such a move. As the EU ambassador to Israel, Emanuele Giaufret, opined, “The connection between the Jews and Jerusalem cannot be denied.” However, virtually the embassies of all countries will remain in Tel Aviv because any move would upset “the diplomatic process.” “There is a UN resolution on the issue – and the question of Jerusalem should come up in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. It would not be good for us to take a new position, before the negotiations. Jerusalem is a sensitive issue that is important to all religions – and it is important that we make an effort so that each side understands the sensitivities of the other side.”
But the effort has been made for fifty years. The negotiations on Jerusalem have been at an impasse for decades. Delaying the decision is viewed by many Jews, particularly supporters of Netanyahu, as favouring the Palestinian position and surrendering to the views of the likes of Democratic National Committee deputy chief and Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison who, in anticipation, dubbed such a move a “horrible tragedy”. (Ellison in the past had offered positive statements on behalf of Nation of Islam leader and anti-Israel advocate, Louis Farrakhan and has insisted that American foreign policy was dictated by the Jewish lobby.)
However, the debate is not over a two-state solution, but over who will have sovereignty over the Holy Places in the Old City. Given that Israel is now in control, any decision to formally recognize that control is considered unilateral and an obstacle to realizing a two-state solution. But refusal to recognize the legitimacy of that control as well as the reality is also a unilateral decision that favours the PA red line.
Does such a decision end the prospect of a negotiated two-state solution? I believe critics are correct. I believe that it certainly will for now, making the timing odd given Jared Kushner’s work on the problem. A decision favouring Israel, even though signaled to Arab leaders ahead of time, will, I believe, make any agreement harder to reach in the near future. America’s role as a broker will be undermined. And the prospect of violence, quite aside from new tensions in the region, will increase.
What about the rumours that Saudi Arabia is now on board favouring the Israeli side? There is no suggestion that Saudi Arabia would accept Israeli sovereignty over the Holy Places. Or has there been a deal? There have been rumours that Saudi Arabia, given its dispute with Iran and Shiite Islam more generally, under the new helm of Crown Prince and strongman Mohammed bin Salman who has had close business ties with the Jewish community and with Jared Kushner in particular, has shifted. In secret negotiations with Israel and quiet negotiations with Jared Kushner, it is rumoured that he agreed that Palestinians would not be given sovereignty over the Old City, and, in return, Israel would acknowledge Saudi Arabia rather than Jordan as having control over the Muslim holy sites, giving the Saudis control of all three of Islam’s most sacred places – Mecca, Medina and now the Great Mosque in Jerusalem. By mentioning it, I do not intend to give credence to such a rumour.
The announcement does shift the ground. That shift alone would destroy the belief of a virtual consensus among Muslim countries. As Ellison put it, is it logical or reasonable in an era of réal politique that a country of 7 million Jews should overrule the views of countries with a population of one billion and a region with a population of 350 million in opposition? The political equation will change, Ellison predicted, when there are more Muslims in America. Hence the link between the ban against Muslim immigrants to the U.S. and American foreign policy on the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. Hence the push for moving embassies to Jerusalem ever since Begin came to power in Israel in the late seventies. But the political equation would also change if Saudi Arabia undermines any consensus. Saudi Arabia has denied that such a proposal is in the works.
The Joe Clarke Conservative government in Canada in 1979 was the first Western country to be convinced to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a policy shift determined by control of the policy committee by a group of Christian Zionists. That initiative ended in a diplomatic storm and a fiasco with a retreat by Canada that made future policy contingent on Arab agreement. When in 1988, the PLO changed its charter to recognize the UN authority and legitimacy in establishing a two-state solution, the door was opened for the Oslo Accords. Though Israel promised to negotiate Jerusalem’s future as part of a peace agreement, Israel had also made clear that Jerusalem, including the Old City, would remain its capital.
But, as stated above, Palestinians also expected East Jerusalem, including the Old City, to become its capital. They did not simply expect to have access to Muslim holy sites, as the editorial in The New York Times this morning opined. For the reality is that, for the most part, Muslims have retained unfettered access to the Haram esh-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary of al-Quds as Jerusalem is better known among Arabs. Access is only denied for security reasons, access not only for Arabs, but to Jewish right-wing instigators when tensions have risen.
The issue is NOT making one-sided decisions before negotiations begin, but making one-sided decisions when negotiations have failed for almost thirty years to cut this Gordian knot. In 1947, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) recommended a two-state solution with a special international status for Jerusalem, not just the Old City, under the sovereign authority of the United Nations Trusteeship Council. In the UNSCOP Committee, this sop of international status for Jerusalem was offered to the representative from Peru, Dr. Alberto Ulloa, a very religious Catholic, to ensure continuing Catholic influence in the city in return for his support for partition. It is noteworthy that even unto today, even with a most progressive pope in office in Rome, the Vatican opposed recognizing Israel’s de facto control over the Old City as legitimate and criticized Trump’s announcement.
The recommendation to put Jerusalem under international control was not a realistic possibility at the time. The attempt to implement the recommendation proved to be an absolute farce. Jews ignored that recommendation and the Palestinians ignored not only it, but the legitimacy of any Israeli state. When Jordan occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1948, they were annexed. The Jews were ethnically cleansed from the Jewish Quarter in the Old City and Jews were denied access to their Holy Places, the Western Wall in Jerusalem and the burial of their founding fathers in Hebron.
Force determined that outcome, though the international community refused in general to recognize both Jordanian authority over East Jerusalem and the Old City and Jewish control over West Jerusalem. Protests faded away in the face of the reality on the ground. Even though most embassies remained in Tel Aviv well before the imbroglio over East Jerusalem and the Old City, the situation remained unchanged after 1967, except that 16 countries that had embassies in West Jerusalem, moved those embassies to Tel Aviv with the de facto annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980. It was not a formal annexation, as was the case with Jordan in 1950, but the borders of the municipality of Jerusalem were extended to include East Jerusalem and Israeli law and administration were then applied to the whole region now called Jerusalem. (The UN General Assembly unanimously condemned the move and declared it invalid, though the GA motion had no legally binding power under international law.)
In sum, Trump’s announcement was clearly made for political purposes: to fulfill a campaign promise, to satisfy his evangelical base, to show gratitude for Sheldon Adelson’s $25 million contribution to the pro-Trump PAC during the election; to earn a legacy; and, last, but not least, to counter Barack Obama’s decision when he was a lame-duck president NOT to veto an anti-Israel resolution in the UN Security Council declaring the settlements illegal. The announcement was an unequivocal pro-Israel statement that was surprisingly nuanced for Trump.
Certainly, Netanyahu expressed his pleasure concerning the announcement. Did the initiative now give Trump extra leverage over the Netanyahu government? Or had Netanyahu been given a green light, for Trump had reiterated what he had said often enough before – it was up to the Israelis and Palestinians to resolve their dispute themselves, though the US would be available to help. The statement certainly labelled opponents who resorted to violence as terrorists. But was a regional strategy missing, or left unsaid and secretly agreed to?
Was the decision based on realism? I suspect that it was based on domestic realism and a kind of legitimate international fabulism, not one that denies reality as its usual modus vivendi, but one based on a vision of Israel with Jerusalem, including the Old City, as its capital, as well as of a Palestinian state without the Old City, but with the Muslim Holy places reified under Muslim authority. The vision is married to action to reinforce change versus stasis tolerating the apparently unmovable status quo.
With the help of Alex Zisman