Jerusalem Two Weeks On: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Posted on December 20, 2017
Almost two weeks ago, the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. At the time, I applauded the move in principle though I expressed prudential concerns about the potential for a violent reaction. I had the strange experience of applauding President Trump’s speech, which plainly was written by people who knew their stuff and which—if people bothered to read it—was much more nuanced than press reports indicated. In summary, the President said that the United States was recognizing the reality that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital but was not making any assertions about the borders of Jerusalem. He called for maintenance of the status quo at the Temple Mount, and he referred to the holy site by its Arabic name, the Haram al-Sharif. So despite all the over-the-top press, it seemed to me that the change in the US position should only really be concerning to people who feel strongly that the original idea of the 1947 partition plan, which would have treated all of Jerusalem (east and west) and its environs as a corpus separatum not subject to any state’s sovereignty. There might be such people, but none of the parties themselves take this view, which seems to me an anachronism. If that’s not your view, I didn’t see how it was reasonable to oppose what the President said, unless you think that Israel has no claim to West Jerusalem, the portion of the city to the west of the Green Line (the border after the war that ensued when the Arab states rejected the partition plan and invaded what was to become the State of Israel).
Today, I want to look at what’s happened regarding Jerusalem since: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The Administration continued its recognition of reality by pointing out another obvious fact: in any future peace deal, the Western Wall will likely remain under Israeli sovereignty:
Senior administration officials briefing reporters on Friday about Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to the region next week were asked whether Pence planned to visit the wall, as President Donald Trump had done during his June visit, and whether it would be an official visit, as opposed to Trump’s, which was private.
“We cannot envision any situation under which the Western Wall would not be part of Israel,” said an official, confirming that Pence’s visit would be in an official capacity. “But as the president said, the specific boundaries of sovereignty of Israel are going to be part of the final status agreement.”
Again, this statement repays careful reading. The Administration isn’t taking a view on the outcome of the peace negotiations but is stating the obvious. And somewhat surprisingly, the US view has led to at least one positive reaction in the Sunni Muslim world:
A Saudi academic has voiced backing for US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and called on Arabs to recognize the city’s sanctity to Jews.
Abdulhameed Hakeem, head of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jedda, told US-based Alhurra television on Saturday that Trump’s move, which touched off protests across the Muslim world from Tunisia to Indonesia, constitutes a “positive shock” to the peace process.
Hakeem added: “We as Arabs must come to an understanding with the other party and know what its demands are, so that we can succeed in peace negotiation efforts, so that negotiations not be futile. We must recognize and realize that Jerusalem is a religious symbol to Jews and sacred to them, as Mecca and Medina is to Muslims.”
I should add that I have no idea who Abdulhameed Hakeem is, and that the rapprochement between Israel and some Sunni Arab states probably has more to do with Iran than with the Palestinians. Still, it’s striking to read a remark like this from someone based in Saudi Arabia.
Despite the carefully calibrated statements, I think it was unfortunate for the US Ambassador and (prospectively) the Vice President to make official visits to the Western Wall. Sovereignty over the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, which borders it, is surely the diciest of the final status issues. So I find it hard to understand why the United States would partly undo the good work embodied in the President’s speech and later statements with official visits that seem to take a position on the things we have just said we aren’t taking positions on.
The Security Council’s reaction to the US moves has been depressing and disheartening. The Council has met twice on the question of Jerusalem since the Trump decision. The first featured some speeches talking about “occupied East Jerusalem.” If you think East Jerusalem is Palestinian territory that Israel is occupying, fine, but then by what right do you object to saying that at least West Jerusalem is Israeli?
The second meeting featured a draft resolution that the United States ended up having to veto after all fourteen of the other members voted in favor. The draft resolution noted that Jerusalem is a final status issue but then, by referring to prior resolutions, reaffirmed its earlier conclusion that Israel is occupying East Jerusalem. The basic view of the international community is that when we are talking about Israeli rights in Jerusalem, Jerusalem is a final status issue, but when we are talking about Palestinian rights in Jerusalem, then at least East Jerusalem is Palestinian territory illegally occupied by Israel.
Who would have thought that the Trump Administration would have issued a nuanced, thoughtful statement that most of the press and the international community hasn’t really tried to understand? That’s a legitimate and happy surprise. On the other hand, there is little surprising about the UN’s continued reflexive anti-Israel bias.