Nightmare scenarios often begin in Jerusalem – so why would Trump trash delicate global consensus on the holy city?
The history of Jerusalem is inextricably bound to the bigger picture of the Middle East conflict
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 peacemaking efforts for decades. Donald Trump’s approach to it threatens to smash a long-standing international consensus in a disruptive and dangerous way.
Saeb Erakat, the veteran PLO negotiator, has warned that a change in the US stance would mean it was “disqualifying itself to play any role in any initiative towards achieving a just and lasting peace”. King Abdullah of Jordan highlighted the danger that the move could be “exploited by terrorists to stoke anger, frustration and desperation in order to spread their ideologies”. The Islamist movement Hamas has threatened a new intifada.
A senior White House official has said Trump will on Wednesday announce that the US recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will move its embassy there. But the pressure to refrain from doing either is mounting and widespread. The risks are high.
Israel routinely describes the city, with its Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy places, as its “united and eternal” capital. But its history is inextricably bound up with the bigger picture of the conflict. Seventy years ago, at the violent end of British rule, when the UN voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, Jerusalem was defined as a separate entity under international supervision.
Hard facts on the ground dictated otherwise. 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.
Recognition is bound up with larger questions of territory and peace – and it clashes with Palestinian demands that 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 negotiations.
Nationalism, religion and security make for an emotionally freighted issue. Jerusalem’s Jews and Arabs (who make up 37 per cent of the total population) live largely separate and in many ways segregated lives. Municipal budgets discriminate against Palestinians, whose residence permits can be revoked. The separation barrier cuts off some Palestinian areas from the rest of the city. East Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighbourhoods have become enclaves surrounded by the post-1967 Jewish ones, with little contact with each other.
The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, adjacent to the Western Wall, remains highly volatile. In July widespread protests erupted after Israeli Arab gunmen killed two Israeli policemen and the authorities installed metal detectors in a way that was interpreted as breaching the status quo. Nightmare scenarios about escalation often begin in Jerusalem.
In theory, Trump could recognise Jerusalem as the capitals of both Israel and Palestine. That would underline the commitment of the US to a two-state solution – which has been in doubt since his inauguration in January. But it seems highly unlikely in the light of intensifying talk about the elements of Trump’s “deal of the century” to resolve the conflict.
Nothing has been announced officially, but leaks point to a key role for Saudi Arabia, which is reportedly pressing the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to accept a peace plan that would involve Palestinian control of disconnected enclaves in the West Bank – dotted with illegal Israeli settlements – and make do with the East Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis, beyond the separation barrier, as a capital. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is said to have worked this out with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Trump seems to have identified Bin Salman as committed to internal reform, confrontation with Iran and to securing Israeli-Palestinian peace. If Washington cares about the view from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s public statement on Tuesday that it opposes US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital may be putting further pressure on the White House.