On Wednesday, Donald Trump announced that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, throwing seven decades of diplomacy into a tailspin. Yeah, the rest of the Arab world didn’t like it. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Frederica Mogherini noted that the announcement could have “very worrying potential impact.” What does this radical shift in policy mean? Lisa Goldman, editor of Mobilisation Lab and co-founder of +972 Magazine, sat down with us to explain.
FPI: Could you give us a brief background on Jerusalem as the Israeli capital?
Lisa Goldman: Jerusalem is a disputed city: the eastern half, about 44 miles in area, includes the 1-mile square walled old city, which is holy to all three monotheistic religions. For the Christians it is the place where Jesus walked with his cross on the way to his crucifixion; for the Jews it is the site of their ancient temple; and for the Muslims it is the place from which the prophet Mohammed rose to heaven.
East Jerusalem is also home to more than 250,000 stateless Palestinians who live in impoverished neighborhoods that are deprived of basic urban amenities and patrolled by Israeli military police. It is also home to the largest Jewish settlements, which most Israelis think of as Jerusalem neighborhoods. It was a divided city between from 1948-1967, with the eastern part in Jordanian territory.
FPI: Could you tell us more about Jerusalem’s divided status?
LG: In June 1967, Israel conquered east Jerusalem and the West Bank during a war that lasted six days. While the normative consensus in the community of nations since the end of World War Two is that land acquired in war should be returned through negotiations, Israel regards Jerusalem as too important symbolically and religious to Jews, to be given up. In 1980, the Knesset, or legislature, passed a law declaring the city unified and east Jerusalem annexed. But almost no other country recognizes Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, because it is unilateral and because the city is disputed between two peoples. The Palestinians view it as the capital of their future state, while the rest of the Arab and Muslim world attach great emotional, historical and religious significance to Jerusalem and its holy sites.
With the status of the city in dispute and the Palestinian question unresolved, the states that have embassies in Israel, maintain them in Tel Aviv rather than in Jerusalem. The meaning is not to deny that West Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. Rather, it is to indicate that until the status of the city is resolved through negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the international community is taking a neutral stance; by keeping their embassies in the coastal city of Tel Aviv, just 45 minutes’ drive from Tel Aviv, the states that have diplomatic relations with Israel are indicating they do not want to tip the balance toward either side in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
FPI: How does Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem change things?
LG: Donald Trump’s declaration that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city is symbolically momentous, but tangibly insignificant. It changes nothing on the ground, but for the Palestinians and the Israelis it means that the United States no longer aspires to be a neutral broker committed to resolving the dispute between the two peoples through negotiations. Trump’s declaration indicates that the U.S. supports Israel in imposing unilateral decisions on the Palestinians.
FPI: How does Trump’s announcement affect the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process?
LG: By declaring that the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announcing his intention to move the embassy there, Trump has taken Israel’s side in the dispute. Since Palestine is no longer an animating issue for the Arab people, and given the failure of the Arab leaders to stand up to Trump or voice support for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinians are alone now. Without external support, they have no way of pushing forward their national struggle for sovereignty. Militarily, they have no options either. Some analysts say this is the end of the Palestinian national struggle. It is not possible to achieve statehood through armed conflict; and without the U.S. or the Arab states as a broker, the Palestinians do not have the leverage necessary to negotiate with the Israelis.
One could say that Trump’s announcement merely confirms the reality, since Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been effectively frozen since 2001 and since Israeli settlement expansion has only accelerated with each successive U.S administration, from Jimmy Carter until the president. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground for Palestinians is grotesque, with over 2.5 million people either living under military closure and in the grips of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza; or stateless, denied municipal services and disenfranchised in East Jerusalem; or squeezed into cantons in the West Bank and denied freedom of movement. Others say that this is analysis is defeatist. Europe could step up to broker between Israel and Palestine, for example. But Europe has shown no interest in playing this role, so far.
FPI: How does Trump’s announcement affect relations between Washington and other Arab countries in the Middle East?
LG: We see from the lack of response in the Arab Middle East to Trump’s announcement, that there will be no real consequences for the White House. The “Arab street” is still crushed from the regimes’ violent response to the uprisings of 2011, while the Arab leaders are preoccupied with the ongoing crises in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Most importantly, the shared fear and loathing of Iran has been the catalyst for an alliance of opportunism between the Gulf states (especially Saudi Arabia), Israel and the United States. So while Saudi Arabia remonstrated quietly with Trump regarding his announcement about Jerusalem, it seems they will not be taking any action.
FPI: Is there anything to the timing of this announcement?
LG: Both Netanyahu and Trump are facing serious corruption investigations. The Jerusalem announcement is a very effective distraction. And for both men, it plays to their populist base — for Trump, the right wing Christian evangelical Zionists, and for Netanyahu the hyper-nationalists who oppose territorial compromise with the Palestinians.