As expected, US President Trump announced that the US would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel and that he intends to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem signalling that shift. The announcement was couched in terms of recognizing “facts on the ground”: non-recognition of Jerusalem had not facilitated the peace process in the past and that the Israeli government operates from the city. These characterizations are both true, although it would have been fairer to state that the status of Jerusalem itself had been a major issue of contention holding up the peace process.
Mr. Trump tried to be very clear that the decision would not prejudice future peace negotiations. Politico described his position in these terms:
“Trump was emphatic in declaring that his decision did not represent a shift in U.S. dedication to the peace process or a change in U.S. position on the region’s contested borders or on the possibility of a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.”
The description is disingenuous. First, it ignores the original UN decision to create three entities in the British Mandate of Palestine: a Jewish Zone, an Arab Zone, and and an internationalized city of Jerusalem. According to the UN:
“General Assembly resolution 181 (II) of 29 November 1947 on partition envisaged a demilitarized Jerusalem as a separate entity under the aegis of the United Nations Trusteeship Council, which would draft a statute for Jerusalem and appoint a Governor. A legislature would be elected by universal adult suffrage. This statute would remain in force for 10 years and would then be duly examined by the Trusteeship Council, with citizens’ participation through a referendum.
“The ensuing hostilities prevented implementation of the resolution. Israel occupied the western sector of the Jerusalem area, and Jordan occupied the eastern sector, including the walled Old City. Thus, there came into existence a de facto division of Jerusalem.
“The General Assembly, however, by resolution 194 (III) of 11 December 1948, reaffirmed both the principle of internationalization and existing rights. The Arab States, refusing to recognize Israel, did not accept it. Israel also ignored the resolution and moved to extend its jurisdiction to that part of Jerusalem which it had occupied. On 23 January 1950, Israel declared Jerusalem its capital and established government agencies in the western part of the city. Jordan, for its part, moved to formalize its control of the Old City; however, Jordanian legislation indicated that this action did not prejudice the final settlement of the Palestinian issue”
The UN made this decision because it was clear at the time that none of the parties involved could tolerate the idea of unilateral sovereignty over the city. Despite the promises that the status of the holy sites in Jerusalem would be unchanged by Mr. Trump’s decision, sovereignty allows changes to be made.
Second, President Trump was not clear on that the decision meant in terms of recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the city. He could have used more precise terms like “West Jerusalem” is the capital of Israel which would have recognized the “facts on the ground” since 1948 and not those of the “facts on the ground” since 1967 when Israel occupied East Jerusalem. By not qualifying the boundaries of the city, President Trump is implicitly recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the entire city.
Third, US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the city does not necessarily mean that other states will do so as well, so in some respects the declaration is meaningless in terms of international law, although the US is regarded by most states as a very important actor in world affairs. I doubt, however, that most states will follow suit.
I suspect that the US decision is not a function of foreign policy at all. It will undoubtedly make the peace process more difficult in the future and the role of the US as a mediator is now irrelevant. No state that supports a Palestinian state now has any reason to accept the US as a good-faith actor. The US role in the Middle East is now consigned to one role and one role only: a possible counterweight to Iranian influence in the region that is so feared by the Sunni states. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is not an important factor in that dynamic except as it fuels popular opposition to the US. I doubt, however, that the autocrats in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or the United Arab Emirates really care that much about dissent in the streets.
The US decision is best explained by US domestic politics. President Trump wishes to shore up support among some Christian evangelicals who have long desired Israeli control over the city of Jerusalem (a movement known as Christian Zionism). Christian Zionists hold that the Second Coming of Christ cannot come until Jews rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Some regard the Christian Zionists as a major impediment to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It may be the case that President Trump wishes to repair the damage to his constituencies done by his support for Ray Moore in the Alabama Senate race.
The move is also consistent with a demand made by one of President Trump’s chief donors, Sheldon Adelson. Adelson contributed more than $43 million to various political campaigns in 2016, primarily to Republican candidates. Adelson is a very strong supporter of Israel.