Calling for “the voices of tolerance to prevail over the purveyors of hate,” President Trump on Wednesday announced that for the first time in the history of modern Israel, the United States will locate its embassy in Jerusalem. The U.S. established diplomatic relations with Israel in January 1949. Since then, the embassy has been in the administrative capital of Tel Aviv.
Reaction is mostly negative
For once, though, the president’s Democratic opposition at home is muted in its reaction. Just two days ago, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi hyperbolically called the GOP tax reform bill “the worst bill in the history of the United States Congress.” (Side note: a friend astutely pointed out Tuesday that this means Pelosi thinks the tax bill is worse than the Alien and Sedition Acts the Fugitive Slave Act, or Prohibition, among other historical abominations). But Wednesday, she toned-down the rhetoric.
“Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish homeland,” she said in a statement. “But in the absence of a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem now may needlessly spark mass protests, fuel tensions, and make it more difficult to reach a durable peace.”
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said ominously, “There is no alternative to the two-state solution. There is no Plan B.” But the president, in making his announcement, made it clear the U.S. is not backing off the two-state solution. Trump specifically said, “The United States would support a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides.” He said he wants ” a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians.”
But he also pointed out that over the two decades since Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, every president has invoked his option to waive the law’s provisions, deeming the waiver, in the law’s words, “necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States.” Trump noted that past presidents have exercised this option in the hopes that it would help reach a lasting Israeli-Pelestinian peace. But the president noted that “After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.”
So the U.S. is not bowing to the reality that Jerusalem has become Israels’s capital whether the U.S. embassy is there or not. If keeping the embassy out of Jerusalem were so central to peace in the Middle East, why has peace not broken out? I’m tempted to say it’s because neither side really wants a two-state solution, despite their public positions.
Jordan’s central part in the conflict
American-educated King Abdullah II of Jordan, a key U.S. ally in the fight against Islamist terrorism in the region, also reacted cautiously. The Jordanian government release a statement following Trump’s call to the king, saying the king warned the president of the “serious implications of the move” and reiterated his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state. He repeated that desire in a call with the Emir of Qatar.
Gaining the support of Abdullah will be critical to the success of any lasting peace.
As the 41st-generation direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, Abdullah is the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, which are at the center of the controversy. The Jewish Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE during the First Jewish-Roman War, was built on the site believed to be where Abraham, the father of the world’s three major monotheistic religions, prepared to sacrifice his son — Isaac if you’re Jewish or Christian, or Ishmael if you’re Muslim.
It is also believed to be the site where Mohammed ascended to heaven, making it central to all three religions. In the late Seventh Century, the Umayyad Caliphate memorialized this by building the Dome of the Rock, and later the Al-Aqsa mosque, on the site. The two still stand 1,200 years later.
The West Bank, an area along the west bank of the Jordan River north and west of the Dead Sea, was originally intended as a Palestinian homeland in the regional plans drawn-up in 1947. But following the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, it became part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Jerusalem was divided between Israel and the West Bank, with the Temple Mount lying in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian half.
Israel took the land back in the 1967 Six-Day War, and annexed East Jerusalem, but not the rest of the West Bank. The success of any two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict revolves around the status of Jerusalem. There’s no way around the fact that it a city rich in religious and cultural significance for both parties. For any solution to work, each side will have to acknowledge the other side’s claim on at least a portion of the city.
Putting the American embassy there will not not change that.