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Nobody Knew Jerusalem Could Be So Complicated

Q&A: What’s the legal status of Jerusalem? What is US policy regarding Jerusalem? would it be a bad idea to move US embassy to Jerusalem? and more…


President Trump has said that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is easier than people think. But, as with the healthcare debate, he’s likely to find that it’s far more complicated than he initially thought — particularly when it comes to Jerusalem. His administration has stumbled on that issue over the past week. And in a few days, he’ll be visiting that city — one of the most complex and politically contentious places on earth.

To further complicate things, his trip comes just before Israel marks its triumph in the Six-Day War when it overcame a threat to its existence and captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank — thus beginning the occupation.

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Given Jerusalem’s complexity, we’ve prepared this Q&A to help with some of the tough questions even people in the Trump administration have had trouble answering this past week.

Far more questions about current events in Jerusalem and Trump’s visit will be replied to during our conference call with world-renowned Jerusalem expert Danny Seidemann this coming Monday (May 22) at 1 pm Eastern. Our calls with Danny are always very popular, so we encourage you to register before the call fills up.


Q: First the basics. What’s the legal status of Jerusalem?

A:  The capital of the historical kingdom of Israel and the holiest city of the Jewish people, Jerusalem has been central to Jewish religious and national identity for more than three millennia, while also being home and deeply religiously significant to Muslims and Christians.

United Nations Resolution 181 — the framework for ending Britain’s League of Nations Mandate in 1947 to create independent Jewish and Arab states — recognized Jerusalem as an international city belonging to no country, with special legal and political status, to be administered by the United Nations. The 1948-9 Arab-Israeli war, however, meant that UN Resolution 181 never went into effect. Instead, Israel claimed sovereignty over the western parts of Jerusalem it won in the war and established its capital there. For its part, Jordan claimed sovereignty over the parts it won east of the armistice line — also known as the “Green Line” — including the Old City and its sacred sites.

Since that time, no action or decision of the international community has superseded the 1947 resolution. The consensus view of the international community — including the United States — is that the parties can only determine the status of Jerusalem as a part of a resolution to the conflict.

During the June 1967 Six-Day War, Israel captured the Old City and the entire territory west of the Jordan River. It extended the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem later that month to incorporate a large swathe of territory captured in the Six-Day War, almost reaching Ramallah to the north and Bethlehem to the south. In 1980, it asserted sovereignty over this area, effectively annexing it and putting it under the control of Israeli law. This annexation has never recognized by any other country, including the United States.

Q: The administration seemed to stumble on the question of US policy around Jerusalem this week. What is US policy?

A:  Since 1967, Democratic and Republican presidents alike have maintained the official United States position that the final status of the entirety of Jerusalem is to be decided by negotiations. Subsequently, they have studiously avoided any actions that could interpreted as prejudging their outcome. As part of that nearly 50 year-long policy, the United States — like every other country with which Israel has bilateral relations — has its embassy in Tel Aviv. A few countries formerly maintained embassies in Jerusalem, but all are now in Tel Aviv or its suburbs.

In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act requiring the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by May of 1999 but granted the president authority to issue a waiver suspending the move for a period of six months at a time. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama signed these waivers throughout their terms because moving the embassy would not be in the national security interests of the US. President Trump has until June 1 to issue a similar waiver to preserve the status quo.

Q: Prime Minister Netanyahu and senior Israeli ministers have publicly urged the president to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Why would that be a bad idea?

A: Since the ultimate disposition of Jerusalem is a final status issue that must be negotiated by Israelis and Palestinians themselves, moving the embassy could cause significant harm to US credibility as a mediator. The United States would be universally seen as having prejudged Jerusalem’s status, undermining confidence among Palestinians and all Arab countries in the region that the United States could play a productive role in negotiations going forward.

Jordan and Egypt, countries that have made peace with Israel and who are eager to contribute to a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process, have made clear to President Trump their strong opposition to moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. This is seen as a major issue among the people of Arab countries. Leaders throughout the region, including those that are increasingly friendly toward Israel, would be under intense domestic pressure to react strongly to such a move.

There could also be a more immediate security impact. Even seemingly minor changes to Jerusalem’s status quo in fact or law have historically had an immense impact on both sides and carry the potential to spark violence. One prominent example is Israeli prime ministerial candidate Ariel Sharon’s controversial and unprecedented visit to the Temple Mount in 2000, which helped trigger riots and the terrible violence of the Second Intifada.

Moving the US embassy — with its implication that the US is shifting its policy on Israel’s annexation of all of Jerusalem — could be throwing a match on an already explosive powder keg. For these reasons, top officials at the State Department, the Pentagon and in the US intelligence community have reportedly urged the White House not to take the drastic step of moving the embassy.

Q: The president is scheduled to visit the Western Wall. Is that a big deal?

A: No previous sitting president has ever visited the Western Wall, considered to be the holiest site in all of Judaism. The Wall is located in the Old City adjacent to the Temple Mount, the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and a sacred place for Muslims. Because the US views the entire Old City as disputed territory whose final status must be settled by negotiations, presidents have typically avoided visiting the site.

The president will not be accompanied by any Israeli leaders or officials on his visit to the Wall, and US diplomats reportedly rejected an Israeli request to help coordinate it so as to avoid doing anything that would even appear to alter the status quo of US policy.

Nonetheless, it’s unusual — and has prompted repeated questions about whether the administration is changing decades of policy and recognizing the Western Wall and its environs as part of Israel. So far, they have refrained from answering.

Q: Politicians are always talking about Jerusalem as an eternal, undivided city. Doesn’t that make a political compromise, a little…well…impossible?

A: Well, let’s break down the assertion that Jerusalem is an “eternal and undivided city.”

First, “eternal.” Jerusalem is an amazing, ancient city. But the Jerusalem that Jews have evoked at the end of our Passover seders since the Middle Ages (“Next year in Jerusalem.”) represents only a tiny portion of the area within the current municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, drawn by the modern state of Israel. The East Jerusalem of today comprises an area ten times larger than when the city was under Jordanian rule, only decades ago. Outside the Old City, most of this area was never considered part of Jerusalem. This is an important factor to keep in mind when considering final status negotiations. There are some useful maps here.

Second, undivided. It’s possible to get this impression if the only part of East Jerusalem you travel to is the Old City. But if you venture further, it’s easy to see that the city is already quite divided (and 61 percent of Israelis say so). Israel’s separation barrier, in fact, disconnects portions of municipal Jerusalem from the rest of the city. Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem do not have Israeli citizenship (though they can apply for it), nor are they technically subject to the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. They vote in local municipal elections, but are massively underserved and marginalized by the general city authorities. Beyond physical barriers, Jerusalem’s divide can be seen in disparities in access to basic municipal services and the rarity of residents venturing beyond their half of the city.

This separation has allowed Israeli and Palestinian experts to draw up maps during previous negotiations that would enable each party to maintain sovereignty over various areas of the city under a peace deal. And, during these talks, creative solutions have been found on the hardest issues, including the Old City and the Holy Basin. Sure, it’s complicated. But it’s possible.

By J Street



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