President Trump’s declaration and recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is undeniably a major symbolic milestone and one that is to be welcomed and applauded.
It is also a courageous move that changes 70 years of Unites States policy.
We should savour the moment.
Symbolism, particularly in that part of the world, is highly important and significant.
I have noted before that when it comes to the Middle East, Trump is much more measured and counter-intuitively to how this move looks on the surface, very cautious.
Even the statement itself was delivered by the President reading off a teleprompter and uncharacteristically, without any ad libbing what so ever.
The question of what Jerusalem and whose Jerusalem however, is not answered.
And he has offered the Palestinians a choice.
Trump has approved an abstract concept more than a physical reality.
He has stated the obvious and one should not underestimate the importance of doing so. Jerusalem is the seat of the Knesset, the High Court, the President, the Prime Minister et al. When for example, world leaders came to the funeral of Shimon Peres, they came to the National Cemetery on Har Herzl in Jerusalem.
In truth, nothing will change on the ground. Trump has in fact signed the waiver for the next 6 month period, precluding moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem.
On Friday Secretary of State Tillerson said the embassy move would take “several years”.
Trump did not take one of a number of immediate steps that he could easily have done, for instance announcing that the US Ambassador David Friedman, would now move his office from Tel Aviv to say, the US Consulate in Jerusalem.
On the contrary, the US State Department said that none of its existing policies would change, including continuing to refuse to name a country of birth in American passports issued for people born in Jerusalem.
Currently some Israelis, particularly on the right, have gone over the top in welcoming the declaration. Minister Miri Regev for example says Trump’s name is now engraved on the Kotel stones.
US recognition of Israel’s capital may or may not come with a price. We just don’t know yet, whether this is a one off, or part of an overall strategy.
If at some point Trump demands Israeli concessions for a future deal, Regev and the Israeli Government will be hard pressed to claim that Trump is not acting in Israel’s best interests.
Israel needs to be careful about painting herself into a corner.
In looking more closely at some of the content of Trump’s statement one can find something to support many different positions. A sort of constructive ambiguity – Trump style.
It should be noted that all of the examples Trump gave about Jerusalem being the seat of Government are in West Jerusalem, the part of Jerusalem Israel has held for 70 years. Not just since the 6 Day War.
Indeed, he referenced 1948/9 not 1967.
“It was 70 years ago that the United States, under President Truman, recognized the State of Israel. Ever since then, Israel has made its capital in the city of Jerusalem.”
No note of 1967 when Israel regained the Holy sites.
However most critically, he also added:
“The capital the Jewish people established in ancient times.”
This importance of this statement should not be underestimated.
It recognises the obvious truth of the Jewish connection over the millennia to Jerusalem – and pokes UNESCO et al in the eye. Not to mention the Palestinian’s ludicrous campaign to deny THE Jewish historical connection to the Holy City.
However Trump erred when he said:
“Jerusalem is not just the heart of three great religions”.
It’s not. It may be important to all three religions, but it is the heart of only one – Judaism.
In his only real reference to the ‘67 war and the liberation and unification of Jerusalem, Trump said:
“Jerusalem is today and must remain a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall, where Christians walk the Stations of the Cross, and where Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque.
I call on all parties to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, including the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif.”
Nothing there about Israeli sovereignty.
In fact, Trump was at great pains to say:
“In making these announcements, I also want to make one point very clear. This decision is not intended in any way to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement. We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis, and a great deal for the Palestinians. We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.”
The Czech government followed Trump on Thursday by also recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But were more specific on her boundaries. And simultaneously recognised parts of Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian State.
“The Czech Republic currently, before the peace between Israel and Palestine is signed, recognises Jerusalem to be in fact the capital of Israel in the borders of the demarcation line from 1967,”
the foreign ministry said in a statement.
The ministry noted:
“the Czech Republic together with other EU member states, following the EU Foreign Affairs Council conclusions, considers Jerusalem to be the future capital of both states, meaning the State of Israel and the future State of Palestine”.
In an oddity, it was actually Russia in April this year that recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, before the US.
Then Russia’s Foreign Ministry said:
“We reaffirm our commitment to the UN approved principles for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, which include the status of East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state. At the same time, we must state that in this context we view West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”
Unlike Trump’s declaration, the Russian statement passed almost without being noticed.
What is clear is that in many ways the whole US announcement is a clever move. It does not recognise any physical size or border for Jerusalem – that is for the negotiations to come. If there will be any.
The Israelis are now locked into Trump’s peace plan if one comes forward.
The wild card is once again, what the reaction of the Palestinians and Arab world will be.
Abba Eban famously said that the Arabs had never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Will they now?
Trump called for deliberations and not violence in response to his announcement:
“It is time for all civilized nations and people to respond to disagreement with reasoned debate, not violence.”
If the Palestinians play it smart, they too will get their payday. Trump after all continues with the US position of recognising the Palestinians as a people and as equal players in the unfolding drama. He said:
“I ask the leaders of the region, political and religious, Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish and Christian and Muslim, to join us in the noble quest for lasting peace.”
And he concluded his statement with:
“Thank you. God bless you. God bless Israel. God bless the Palestinians. And God bless the United States.”
There is no change to the ground rules of any future process and the game remains – if Trump presents a deal, and if it should fail – who will get the blame and suffer the consequences?
The Israelis now have no choice but to support a deal if presented. They have received their reward and welcomed it. It remains up to the Palestinians to see if they will use this opportunity to extract their own price for being in the game, or whether they will use this declaration as an excuse to walk away from yet another opportunity to have a state.
By walking away, they will only reinforce Prime Minster Netanyahu’s contention, and crystallise for President Trump, that the Palestinians are really not serious about paying the price for a State of their own. That is, a Jewish State of any size alongside them.
The Jerusalem that Trump recognised is both a reality now and a reality in any future two state deal. The Palestinians give up nothing by simply accepting it. By rejecting this declaration, they risk seeing a Jerusalem that indeed remains undivided and under full Israel sovereignty.
Once again, it is up to the Palestinians – negotiations or violence – deal or no deal.