On December 6th, Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. During the announcement, a confident but smirking Mike Pence stood behind the President, proud and sure of such a controversial statement. Controversial because for decades, U.S. foreign policy avoided the issue of Jerusalem and postponed debate with the excuse that the subject should be discussed at the end of ongoing peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
In the days leading up to the official decision, it was clear how Arabs and Muslims around the world would react, but with the blessings of important regional players, Trump acted and fulfilled his campaign promise.
What are the consequences of such a decision?
Jerusalem is home to some of the most important religious sites of the three major Abrahamic faiths. When Jews pray, they face Jerusalem in the direction of the Temple Mount, where the Second Temple once stood. The latter replaced Solomon’s Temple (i.e., the First Temple) destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Jews believe that one day there will be a third temple and that it will be built on the same site. In total, Jews account for 62% of the population in Jerusalem.
In the case of Christians, Jerusalem is sacred because Jesus Christ ministered there but, most importantly, also died and was resurrected in this special city. Christians are present in Jerusalem, even though they are often forgotten: They represent less than 3% of the population.
Muslims consider Jerusalem holy as it is home to the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site after the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina. It was in the direction of Jerusalem that Muslims first prayed and where they believe the Prophet Muhammad prayed before he was transported to heaven. Muslims represent 35% of the population in Jerusalem.
Indeed, the three major religions place great significance on Jerusalem. It is a city endowed with holiness, cited in the Torah, the Bible and the Quran. Yet, since Israel’s founding in 1948, the Jewish State has claimed ownership of the holy city.
In 1967, during the Six Day War, Israel captured and subsequently annexed East Jerusalem in a breach of international law. The U.N. Security Council admonished Israel at the time, calling on the country to withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories.
But Israel stayed and instead used the status of East Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories as a bargaining chip. This “land for peace” formula served as the basis for future negotiations. Meanwhile, the Israeli military annexed 7,000 hectares (70 sq. km.) and applied Israeli law there.
Today, the annexed zone is home to 370,000 Palestinians and 280,000 Israeli settlers. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital grants the latter group sovereignty in the Holy City, allowing them to draft and execute laws as well as impose taxes. These are rights and privileges not afforded to the Palestinians living there.
Israel’s neighbors (and enemies) react
Most world leaders condemned Trump’s decision, including Israel’s neighbors.
King Abdullah of Jordan, who has custodian ownership of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, affirmed that “the decision will have serious implications that will undermine efforts to resume the peace process and provoke Muslims and Christians alike.”
“If half the funds spent by some rulers in the region to encourage terrorism, extremism, sectarianism and incitement against neighbors was spent on liberating Palestine, we wouldn’t be facing today this American egotism,” Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif said, apparently accusing Saudi Arabia of conspiracy.
Tehran wasn’t alone in making this accusation. Palestinian officials reportedly expressed that Riyadh had pressed them to support a U.S.-backed peace plan despite the Americans’ announcement. This plan is set to be unveiled in the first half of 2018.
For his part, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman publicly condemned the U.S.’ unilateral decision.
“Such a dangerous step is likely to inflame the passions of Muslims around the world due to the great status of Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa Mosque,” King Salman told the American President prior to his announcement according to Saudi state media. “Any American announcement regarding the situation of Jerusalem prior to reaching a permanent settlement will harm peace talks and increase tensions in the area.”
Despite his father’s denunciation, Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and heir to the throne, has shared a strong relationship with White House senior advisor Jared Kushner. Kushner, whom President Trump tasked with achieving Middle East peace, had reportedly conversed with the Crown Prince prior to the White House’s recognition of Jerusalem last week.
Jerusalem, an impediment and stepping stone to peace
Following President Trump’s announcement, two Palestinians were killed and many more injured in a so-called “Day of Rage” demonstration. Israeli airstrikes also killed two Hamas fighters in Gaza hours after Hamas fired missiles into Israeli airspace. Israel has often defended its airstrikes and incursions into the Gaza Strip by invoking Hamas aggression. This includes violent reprisals that have resulted in the deaths of innocent Palestinians.
Israel and the United States contend that recognizing Jerusalem is part of a greater plan for reconciliation, one of which no one else — including the Palestinian Authority — is aware.
Certainly, this isn’t a pathway to regional peace.
When Israel perpetrates injustices (for example, murdering innocent Palestinians in airstrikes) and breaches international law (permitting illegal Israeli settlements), Palestinians have every reason to doubt the American and Israeli efforts.
Jerusalem does not belong to one sect, people, or ethnicity. The status of this holy city requires fair evaluation. Enough blood has been spilled for land and resources in the Holy Land. The identity politics used by both camps declaring that Jerusalem is Jewish or Muslim is irrelevant and fuels a debate solely based on hate or prophetic verses that are irrelevant for a pragmatic, modern solution. ♦
Mourad Kamel is a Cairo-based writer. He has previously published in The London Globalist.