Why declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a hot-button issue

Jerusalem, Washington: There’s no other country that has an embassy in Jerusalem.

All foreign embassies in the state of Israel are in Tel Aviv. But a few hours from now, President Donald Trump is about to change that.

On Wednesday, Trump is expected to announce that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will move its embassy there — breaking with longtime US policy and potentially stirring unrest, not only in the Middle East.

Why is the move controversial?

The move could spark controversy not only in the Middle East but across the world.

The announcement would move Trump one step closer to fulfilling his campaign pledge to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move long sought by Israel, but set aside by previous US Presidents due to regional concerns and Jerusalem’s contested status between Israelis and Palestinians.

Both sides claim the holy city as their capital.

What is Trump expected to do?

Trump, in a 1 pm (1800 GMT, 8pm Dubai) White House speech, is expected to direct the State Department to begin looking for a site for an embassy in Jerusalem as part of what is expected to be a years-long process of relocating diplomatic operations from Tel Aviv.

Trump is to sign a national security waiver delaying a move of the embassy, since the United States does not have an embassy structure in Jerusalem to move into.

A senior administration official said it could take three to four years to build an embassy. Still, Trump’s decision will upend decades of American policy that has seen the status of Jerusalem as part of a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as their capital.

What is the meaning of Trump’s waiver?

Upon making his decision public, Trump is expected to sign a waiver to keep the US embassy in Tel Aviv for another six months. But the State Department’s security arm has been told to plan for potentially violent protests at US embassies and consulates if the White House announces the move.

Why is declaring Jerusalem the capital such a big deal?

Washington’s Middle East allies all warned against the dangerous repercussions of such a decision.

“The president believes this is a recognition of reality,” said one official, who briefed reporters on Tuesday about the announcement. “We’re going forward on the basis of a truth that is undeniable. It’s just a fact.”

Senior Trump administration officials said Trump’s decision was not intended to tip the scale in Israel’s favour, and that agreeing on the final status of Jerusalem would remain a central part of any peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

In defending the decision, the officials said Trump was reflecting a fundamental truth: That Jerusalem is the seat of the Israeli government and should be recognized as such.

On the other hand, the Palestinians have said the move would mean the “kiss of death” to the two-state solution.

The final status of Jerusalem has always been one of the most difficult and sensitive questions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  

A US declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would be seen as prejudging that question, deciding an issue that was supposed to be left to negotiations and breaking with the international consensus on the holy city.


What are key leaders saying about this move?

Pope Francis, speaking to Palestinians ahead of Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem, said on Wednesday “recognizing the rights of all people” in the Holy Land is a primary condition for dialogue.

The pope, who spoke to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about the crisis on Tuesday, made his comments to a group of visiting Palestinians involved in inter-religious dialogue with the Vatican.

“The Holy Land is for us Christians the land par excellence of dialogue between God and mankind,” he said. He spoke of dialogue between religions “and also in civil society”.

“The primary condition of that dialogue is reciprocal respect and a commitment to strengthening that respect, for the sake of recognising the rights of all people, wherever they happen to be,” he said.


Palestinians and Arab leaders have warned they will jeopardise any Middle East peace process. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman had also said that the recognition of Jerusalem would be a “flagrant  provocation to Muslims”.

Israel has always regarded Jerusalem as its capital city, while the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

On Wednesday, Iran’s leadership has declared that the US intention to move its embassy to Jerusalem is a sign of ‘incompetence and failure’ while Germany has warned of clashes in Jerusalem amid planned US recognition

Declaring occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will “end” any prospects of a future Palestinian state, said Amr Mousa, former Arab League secretary-general, in Abu Dhabi. Mousa, who has also served as Egypt’s foreign minister, was speaking at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy.

“US President [Donald] Trump is now mulling whether to declare [occupied] Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. [Such a move] will be the end of the peace movement,” he said.


How will the move going to benefit the US or Trump?

The political benefits for Trump are unclear. The decision will thrill Republican conservatives and evangelical Christians who make up a large share of his political base.

But it will complicate Trump’s desire for a more stable Middle East and Israel-Palestinian peace and arouse tensions. Past presidents have put off such a move.

The mere hint of his decision to move the embassy in the future set off alarm bells around the Middle East, raising the prospect of violence.

“Our Palestinian people everywhere will not allow this conspiracy to pass, and their options are open in defending their land and their sacred places,” said Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh.

Militant groups such as Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah have in the past tried to exploit Muslim sensitivities over Jerusalem to stoke anti-Israel and anti-US sentiment.


How would Trump’s decision be carried out?

CNN reported that since there is already a US consulate in Jerusalem, and the embassy remains in Tel Aviv, it could be as simple as switching the names — making the embassy in Jerusalem and a consulate in Tel Aviv. The US Ambassador to Israel would move from his residence in a Tel Aviv suburb to Jerusalem.

That’s the only simple part. Moving the embassy risks setting off diplomatic crises with Arab states that could include widespread protests outside of US diplomatic offices in those and other countries.

The ramifications of an embassy move would be felt far outside of Jerusalem. Political observers say the move would overturn 70 years of international consensus. Many also argue that it  would effectively signal the end of moves to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians.


What are the potential implications?

The decision comes as Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, leads a relatively quiet effort to restart long-stalled peace efforts in the region, with little in the way of tangible progress thus far.

“The president will reiterate how committed he is to peace. While we understand how some parties might react, we are still working on our plan which is not yet ready. We have time to get it right and see how people feel after this news is processed over the next period of time,” one senior official said.

Trump spoke to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Saudi King Salman to inform them of his decision.

The Jordanian king “affirmed that the decision will have serious implications that will undermine efforts to resume the peace process and will provoke Muslims and Christians alike,” said a statement from his office.


Who are the Jerusalem residents?

CNN reported that roughly 850,000 people live in Jerusalem — 37% are Arab and 61% are Jewish, according to the independent think tank Jerusalem Institute.

The Jewish population includes around 200,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, with the rest split generally between religious Zionist and secular Jews. Another 1% are Arab Christians.

The vast majority of the Palestinian population lives in East Jerusalem. Although there are some mixed neighbourhoods in Jerusalem where both Israelis and Arabs live, most of the neighbourhoods are split.

What’s happening to Palestinians in Jerusalem?

Only 13 per cent of occupied East Jerusalem land is allowed for Palestinian construction, while only 7 per cent of building permits are granted to Palestinians.

As of October 31, 2017 Israel authorities have issued demolition order, or demolished 925 Palestinians homes in the west bank Area C and Occupied East Jerusalem. (According to Oslo Agreement, Area C covers 60 per cent of the West Bank. Israel has retained almost full control of the area, including security and construction, while the Palestinian Authority provides education and health services).

Nearly 1,360 night raids are conducted on Palestinians each year, a majority of which are within two kilometres of an Israeli colony. Around 70,000 Palestinians living in Area C have been subjected to colonies’ violence, including harassment, physical violence and destruction or property.

Only 8.5 per cent of the complaints made by Palestinians for settlers’ violence led to indictment, which demonstrates the prevailing impunity for such violence.

According to Israel’s Ministry of Interior, Israel has revoked more than 14,500 residences from Palestinians from occupied Jerusalem since 1967. 


What happened before?

The 1947 UN partition plan envisaged Jerusalem as a separate “international city.” In 1967, Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem and later annexed it. The international community does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the entire city, home to sites holy to the Muslim, Jewish and Christian religions.

“We have always regarded Jerusalem as a final-status issue that must be resolved through direct negotiations between the two parties based on relevant Security Council resolutions,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

The war that followed Israel’s declaration of independence one year later left the city divided.

When fighting ended in 1949, the armistice border — often called the Green Line because it was drawn in green ink — saw Israel in control of the western half, and Jordan in control of the eastern half, which included the famous Old City.


When did that change?

During the 1967 war, Israel occupied East Jerusalem. Since then, all of the city has been under Israel’s authority. The city marks “Jerusalem Day” in late-May or early-June. But Palestinians, and many in the international community, continue to see East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.


Have any countries ever had their embassy in Jerusalem?

Yes. Before 1980 a number of countries did, including the Netherlands and Costa Rica. But in July of that year, Israel passed a law that declared Jerusalem the united capital of Israel. The United Nations Security Council responded with a resolution condemning Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and declared it a violation of international law.


What did other countries do with their embassies?

In 2006, Costa Rica and El Salvador were the last to move their embassies out of Jerusalem, joining the rest of the world in locating their embassies in Tel Aviv.


What about consulates?

Some countries do maintain consulates in Jerusalem, including the US, which has one in the western part of the city. Britain and France have a consulate in the eastern part of the city, which serve as their countries’ main representation in the Palestinian territories.

Where is the US embassy in Israel?

It has always been in Tel Aviv, with the Ambassador’s residence in Herzliya Pituach, about 30 minutes north.

Does the US have a plot for an embassy in Tel Aviv?

In 1989, Israel began leasing to the US a plot of land in Jerusalem for a new embassy. The 99-year lease cost $1 per year. To this day, the plot has not been developed, and it remains an empty field.

In 1995, the US Congress passed a law requiring America to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Proponents said the US should respect Israel’s choice of Jerusalem as its capital, and recognize it as such.


So why hasn’t the embassy moved yet?

Every president since 1995 — Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama — has declined to move the embassy, citing national security interests.

Every six months, the President has used the presidential waiver to circumvent the embassy move.


What is the Israelis’ response?

The Israeli government has lauded Trump’s pledge to follow through with the embassy move. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has been perhaps the most outspoken advocate, launching a campaign just days before the US President’s inauguration, urging him to make good on his promise.


And the Palestinians’ response?

Palestinian leaders are adamant that an embassy move to Jerusalem would be a violation of international law, and a huge setback to peace hopes.

President Mahmoud Abbas has turned to other world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Jordan’s King Abdullah, to help pressure Trump to change his mind.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has suggested it would consider revoking its recognition of Israel, and canceling all agreements between Israelis and Palestinians, should the move take place.

More immediately, there are fears it could set off a wave of unrest — perhaps even street protests and violence — in the Palestinian territories and across the Arab world.

(With inputs from agencies)

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