Home / Articles / Trump’s Jerusalem Embassy Move: A Busted Flush?
In 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II rode into Jerusalem on a white horse, flamboyantly manifesting his resolve to transform Germany into a world power. In 1977, Anwar Sadat, the first Egyptian president to visit Israel, flew to Jerusalem as an earnest of his desire for peace. The huge symbolic significance of Jerusalem has attracted grand theatrical gestures throughout history.
So it is with President Donald Trump’s declaration in December 2017 that he would transfer the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The announcement enthused many fervent supporters of Israel while infuriating Palestinian Arabs and their patrons in the Arab states. But on the ground, little has changed. The episode is unlikely to have long-term diplomatic or political consequences. How has such a seemingly minor technical matter as the location of an embassy nevertheless produced such a rumpus?
Its origins go back to the establishment of Israel. Between 1920 and 1948 Jerusalem had been the capital of the British mandated territory of Palestine. A “mandate,” akin to a colony, was under the control of the governing state and therefore no embassies were based there, only consulates. In November 1947, when the United Nations approved the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish, the other Arab, it made an exception for Jerusalem and its environs, including the town of Bethlehem. That area was to be a “corpus separatum,” part of neither state. Instead, it would be under direct UN administration. After ten years, a plebiscite was to be held to determine whether a majority of the inhabitants wished to join either the Jewish or the Arab state.
United Nations members could not, however, agree to back up the organization’s decision with armed force. As a result, the UN was never able to implement its resolutions on Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the Arabs and Israel decided the issue in battle. When the fighting died down, culminating in armistice agreements in 1949, the city found itself divided. The western, mainly Jewish-inhabited districts were held by Israel; the eastern, mainly Arab ones, including the Old City, fell under the control of King Abdullah of Jordan. He had come to the “rescue” of the Palestinian Arabs, and succeeded in annexing to his kingdom what came to be called the West Bank (of the Jordan river).
The international community never recognized the partition of Jerusalem. In fact, as the Israeli historian Motti Golani has pointed out, after 1949 the only two countries that favored it were Israel and Jordan.
In December of that year, Israel’s prime minister, David Ben Gurion, went further. In an impulsive declaration, worthy of President Trump, he proclaimed Jerusalem “an integral part of the State of Israel and its historic capital.” “No United Nations vote,” he insisted, “will change this historic fact.” Several cabinet members, including the foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, doubted the wisdom of this pronouncement, but with characteristic pugnacity Ben Gurion pushed it through regardless. “I knew we had an ally – Transjordan,” he later said. “If they were permitted to hold on to Jerusalem, why weren’t we? Transjordan would permit no-one to get them out of Jerusalem; consequently no one would dare to remove us.” Most Israeli government offices were eventually transferred to Jerusalem, save the Defense Ministry, which remains in Tel Aviv to this day.
As for Abdullah, he paid the supreme price for what some saw as his betrayal of the Arab cause in treating with Israel: in July 1951, he was assassinated by a Palestinian as he left Friday prayers in al-Aqsa Mosque on al-Haram al-Sharif (what Jews call the Temple Mount) in Jerusalem. His successors on the Jordanian throne, while often friendly to Israel, have generally behaved with circumspection on matters relating to Jerusalem.
The Israeli declaration of Jerusalem as its capital did not yield rapid dividends. The U.S. State Department informed the Israeli Foreign Ministry that the United States did “not recognize the sovereignty of Israel in Jerusalem.” All the great powers concurred. With few exceptions, foreign diplomats remained stationed in Tel Aviv.
There were several reasons, among them a desire not to provoke the hostility of Arab and Muslim states and a wish to keep the prospect of recognition of Israeli Jerusalem up the diplomatic sleeve as a potential bargaining card. But the main reason was that the powers could not agree on any alternative policy on Jerusalem. So non-recognition of the city as Israel’s capital froze into permanence. Like non-recognition of Communist China, it became for long an unquestioned axiom of U.S. foreign policy.
For eighteen years after 1949, a fence divided the Jordanian and Israeli sectors of Jerusalem. Intercourse between the two sides was almost completely severed. Only diplomats, some Christian pilgrims, and a few other privileged persons were able to pass through the single crossing point at the “Mandelbaum gate” (so called because it was near the house of a Jewish merchant of that name). Occasionally, Jordanians and Israelis exchanged potshots across the line.
In June 1967, Abdullah’s grandson, King Hussein, imprudently joined Egypt and Syria in war against Israel. Israeli forces immediately occupied east Jerusalem, together with the whole of the West Bank. The epic victory in the “Six-Day War” restored Israel’s hitherto drooping self-confidence and gave rise to a far-reaching movement of nationalist assertiveness. Israel celebrated the “reunification” of Jerusalem and effectively annexed the eastern portion of the city. The municipal boundary was expanded to incorporate adjacent areas. A cult of the Western Wall, the Jewish holy place just below the Temple Mount, captured the imagination of Jews, even many non-religious ones, the world over.
In the course of the past half-century, large housing estates for Jews have been built in Jerusalem as well as in a broader area ringing the city. Its Jewish population has consequently grown by leaps and bounds. Yet, Arab natural increase has more than kept pace, with the result that the Arab proportion of the population has risen from 26 percent in 1967 to 40 percent today.
Arab Jerusalemites, unlike the population of the West Bank, are routinely granted Israeli residence permits, giving them access to Israeli national insurance and the right to vote in municipal, but not parliamentary, elections. Theoretically, they can apply for Israeli citizenship, but, in practice, bureaucratic obstacles make that difficult and only a few thousand have done so. Most, therefore, remain in a legal-political limbo, with limited rights in the city of their birth.
The Israeli conquest of east Jerusalem did not change the international consensus opposing recognition of Israeli sovereignty anywhere in the city. Only a few countries, mainly in Africa or Latin America, established embassies there: by 1973, just 16 had done so. But after the 1973 war, when many African states withdrew recognition from Israel altogether, that number dwindled.
The visit of President Sadat in 1977 paved the way for a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, but there was no agreement on Jerusalem. In 1980, the Israeli Knesset (parliament), prodded by the extreme right, enacted a “Basic Law” declaring that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” The mayor of the city, Teddy Kollek, was among the many skeptics: “All in all,” he said, “Jerusalem will benefit nothing from the law.” He was soon proved right. The United Nations Security Council censured Israel by fourteen votes to zero (the United States abstaining). All remaining countries with embassies in Jerusalem withdrew them to Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile the Jerusalem question was drawn into American politics, largely as a result of the growing influence of the pro-Israel lobby, supported by both Jews and evangelical Christians. Every major-party presidential candidate from 1972 onwards, even George McGovern, regarded as unfriendly towards Israel, issued a campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. With equal regularity, every incoming president, on the stern advice of the State Department, found some way of avoiding fulfillment of the promise.
In the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the 1990s, the combustible Jerusalem issue was repeatedly set aside for fear of derailing the whole process. At the last-gasp meeting of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000, President Clinton offered a compromise: “The general principle,” he proposed, “is that Arab areas [of the city] are Palestinian and Jewish ones are Israeli.” Palestine would be sovereign over the Muslim holy places and Israel over the Western Wall. It was understood that each state would have its capital in Jerusalem.
Shortly afterwards, an incident on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem kindled a new conflagration known as the “second intifada.” The return to violence precluded any progress towards a settlement, whether on Jerusalem or anything else. Yet, the “Clinton parameters” gradually gained the tacit approval of influential circles among both Israelis and Palestinians. In 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a former mayor of the city, in negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, offered to withdraw from Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem and place the Old City under international supervision. But those talks too led nowhere as Olmert’s government collapsed in a corruption scandal.
Over the past decade, under the hardline leadership of Benyamin Netanyahu, Israel has tightened its hold on east Jerusalem. Checkpoints at all access points from the West Bank have blocked off Arab Jerusalem from its natural hinterland in the West Bank. Israeli housing developments in and around the city have mushroomed, while Arab applications for building permits are routinely rejected.
Today, “reunified” Jerusalem is, in reality, an unhappily disunited place. The “security barrier” constructed by Israel in recent years, slices through the city no less brutally than the pre-1967 partition fence. Constructed mainly of concrete blocks, like the former Berlin wall, it twists and turns for 125 miles through (not just around) the city. At least 90,000 Jerusalem Arabs as a result find themselves cut off from the rest of Jerusalem.
In the northeast of the municipal area, the walled-in Shuafat refugee camp, a festering slum, home to tens of thousands of people, receives virtually no municipal services. Utilities and sewage are in a state of near-collapse. Garbage remains uncollected. Rats proliferate. Periodic raids by Israeli security personnel are all that remains of public security. Emergency vehicles dare not enter. On account of its pervasive violence, local residents call the area “Chicago.”
President Trump has seen a different kind of American parallel. In November 2016, he advanced the Israeli barrier as a model for his proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexican border: “If you think walls don’t work, all you have to do is ask Israel,” he said.
But the wall has not stopped terrorism in the city. Sporadic attacks by Palestinian “lone wolves” have continued to kill and injure Israeli Jews as well as foreign workers and tourists. Fear of violence is a prevalent reality of daily life in the city.
The attacks derive from a suppurating sense of collective grievance among Palestinians that is socio-economic as well as political. The Israeli newspaper Ha-aretz reported recently that Arab Jerusalem “is still plagued by poverty, neglect, illegal construction and a shortage of school classrooms, while anarchy reigns in areas beyond the separation barrier.” Half a century after Jerusalem’s supposed unification, its two halves receive grossly disproportionate shares of municipal resources—this in spite of promises by successive mayors to rectify such allocations.
Even as Arab Jerusalem is sunk in arrested economic development and political despair, Jewish Jerusalem is deeply divided within itself. Ultra-orthodox and secular Jews live apart, send their children to different schools, and engage in perennial rows over such issues as Sabbath observance, women’s rights, and the refusal of ultra-orthodox Jews to serve in the army.
Residents of Jerusalem thus live in distinct topographic, linguistic, religious, social, and psychological cocoons. This is, without question, the most divided capital city in the world.
In accordance with time-honored ritual, Mr. Trump declared in the course of his presidential campaign that he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem “fairly quickly” upon taking office. After his inauguration, it appeared at first that, like his predecessors, he would find some pretext for reneging on the commitment. But last December, with characteristic spontaneity, he “tweeted” that he was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and would move the U.S. embassy there.
In a more formal announcement a little later, he claimed that his decision was “nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality.” He did not spell out which realities he had in mind. If he consulted the State Department, he ignored its advice. He did not consult or even inform his allies. Nor did he reckon that diplomacy has to do not only with facts (real or “alternative”) but also with legitimacy, the formation of coalitions of like-minded nations, and the prudent exercise of national self-interest.
Seemingly oblivious to the self-contradiction involved, the president stated: “We are not taking a position o[n] any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders.” That passage had evidently been inserted in his statement at the urging of the State Department. Yet, a few weeks later, he further muddied the waters by boasting, “We took Jerusalem off the table. So we don’t have to talk about it any more.”
Following President Trump’s announcement, 128 countries backed a UN General Assembly resolution calling on the U.S. to change course. Only seven countries, apart from the United States and Israel, voted against. These were all U.S. client-states such as the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, and Palau. Most of these had no diplomatic representation in Israel. The only UN member so far to announce that it will follow the American lead and move its embassy to Jerusalem is Guatemala. The Czech Republic toyed with the idea, but now seems to have backed off. On this, as on so much else these days, the United States thus finds itself bereft of support even from most of its allies.
The new U.S. embassy will formally open in Jerusalem in a few weeks’ time. The site chosen is a U.S. consular building bizarrely located in “no-man’s land” on the former dividing line between the Jordanian and Israeli sectors of the city. The move will be more demonstrative than substantial: large numbers of embassy employees will continue to work in Tel Aviv while new facilities and protective security are constructed in Jerusalem. That may take years.
In defense of Mr. Trump’s action, it might be argued that much of the original rationale for the traditional U.S. position on Jerusalem has eroded over time. Contrary to many expectations, initial reactions from Muslim and Arab states were somewhat muted. More pressing problems such as the civil wars in Syria and Yemen command their attention. Tensions in the West Bank and Gaza have admittedly risen in recent weeks and have once again exploded into violence. But that has more to do with deteriorating social and economic conditions, especially in Gaza, than with diplomatic arcana that seem remote from the everyday lives of most Palestinians. Proponents of Mr. Trump’s action have argued persuasively that the Palestinians may, in due course, decide that they have more urgent things to worry about that the address of the U.S. embassy.
The president may nevertheless find that, like David Ben Gurion in 1949, what seems like a straightforward affirmation of reality turns out to be an ill-timed and foolhardy venture. It exhibits to the world American friction with its allies at a time when, both in Europe and in East Asia, they are under renewed threat from nuclear-armed antagonists. The move has been strongly criticized by professional American diplomats, including nine out of eleven former ambassadors to Israel. It pulls the rug out from under the administration’s reported intention to unveil yet another peace plan for the Middle East.
Disheartened advocates of the “two-state solution” lament that Mr. Trump’s demonstration of partiality will prevent the United States from acting as an honest broker in negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the episode retards rather than advances prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, already dimmer than at any point since 2000.
The embassy move is, in reality, little more than a hollow public-relations gesture, designed primarily for internal U.S. consumption. Perhaps Mr. Trump will crown it with a triumphant visit to Jerusalem, like the Kaiser. In spite of the president’s fondness for parades, he will probably not enter the Jaffa Gate on horseback. But he could inaugurate the embassy and admire the wall. He might, however, bear in mind what the Kaiser’s empty braggadocio led to.
President Trump may be a self-proclaimed master of the art of the deal, but his decision on Jerusalem is no big deal. Actually, it is no deal at all, since this was a unilateral concession, in return for which the United States gained no quid pro quo. The “card up the sleeve,” as dealt by Mr. Trump, turns out to have been a busted flush.