Trump’s Declaration of Jerusalem as Capital – A Moral Move
By: Tejas Kashyap
Editor's Note: This is part of our "Two Perspectives" series. You can find a different view on this issue here.
On December 7, 2017, at 1:07 PM, US President Donald Trump issued a proclamation that officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in a “recognition of reality.” With this came the order to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, fulfilling campaign promises that date back to Trump’s speech to AIPAC in March 21, 2016. This move was dubbed “historic” by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called Jerusalem the declared capital of Israel since 1950, and the de facto capital of the Jewish people for the last 3,000 years. Netanyahu encouraged all countries seeking peace in the region to join forces with the US in their declaration and move embassies to Jerusalem. However, this decision has come under fire from several groups that claim Trump’s decision could compromise stability in the region. The decision was also recently the subject of a United Nations resolution, introduced by Egypt, that sought to have President Trump withdraw the decision. US representative Nikki Haley vetoed and overturned this resolution in the UN on December 18, 2017.
For Trump, this recognition constitutes an extension of rightful policy previously passed by Congress. The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 was passed near-unanimously in the Senate 93-5, and in the House 374-37. It acknowledged that, before the Six Day War of 1967, the Jordanian government denied Israeli citizens access to holy sites, although Jerusalem holds spiritual and religious interests important to each of the world’s Abrahamic religions. Since this war, when East Jerusalem was won back by Israel, Jerusalem has been a united city administered fairly by Israel as the spiritual center of the Jewish people and the seat of the Israeli President, Parliament, and Supreme Court. In 1995, Congress declared that “Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel; and the United States Embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999.”
However, for over 20 years, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have failed to exercise the act. Clinton, initially, was a supporter of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and attacked sitting President George H.W. Bush over the issue during his presidential campaign. However, Clinton became fearful of backlash from American allies in the Arab and Muslim world during his presidency, and left the bill unsigned, demonstrating his disapproval. Our past chief executives have hidden behind Constitutional provisions that give the President power to recognize foreign sovereignty, calling the Congressional Jerusalem Act “advisory,” rather than mandatory. Accordingly, the last three presidents have signed a waiver every 6 months for the past 20 years to delay the moving of the embassy until a “solution” is found between Israel and Palestine. However, these past presidents, in making calculated moves to defend their immense executive power, have failed to actually exercise it. The representatives of the citizens of the United States wrote into law an act to recognize reality and support a longstanding US ally, and through executive chicanery, our presidents for the last 20 years have evaded this act.
All countries have the sovereign right to declare their own capital, a capital which should be recognized by all other nations as a sign of sovereign respect. Jerusalem is within the territorial bounds of Israel, although it straddles the West Bank, controlled by the Palestinians. Israel has the right to declare its own capital, which it has designated as Jerusalem, because it is recognized in the United Nations as a full member since 1949 and by a vast majority of member states: 161 out of 192.
The Palestinians have no such right to declare a capital that must be recognized by others, because they are not legally recognized as a country by a variety of entities. In the United Nations, Palestine is not recognized as a sovereign nation, and is referred to as a non-member observer state. Moreover, the Oslo Accords signed between PM Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on May 5, 1994 disallowed the Palestinians from maintaining embassies or consulates in other countries. While the Oslo Accords allowed Palestinians control over internal political arrangements and daily affairs, including elections, tax collection, and judicial issues, the lack of recognized formal embassies combined with the lack of formal recognition from the UN maintain the status of Palestine as a non-sovereign nation, which should not be allowed to designate a capital that must be respected by other nations.
Aside from a legal reason based on definitions of statehood, Palestine has still proclaimed East Jerusalem as its capital, which conflicts with Israel’s declaration as Jerusalem as its own capital. There is no other situation in history where two countries have successfully and logistically adopted one city as their own, without division. After the 6-Day War of 1967, Jerusalem has been de jure joined, although in reality the various parties exist in different areas of the city. Opponents to President Trump’s move will say that the declaration was unnecessary and will cause instability and heightened violence in the region. An article in the Atlantic has stated that “predetermining the final status of Jerusalem” before a final reconciliation has been made would “derail any hope of a Israeli-Palestinian peace process.” However, Jerusalem is simply an excuse for violence from the Palestinians, because they have continually turned down peace offerings and two-state solutions from the Israelis, giving no indication that they will ever accept any solution and end the state-sponsored terrorism from Hamas. A reconciliation under the current negotiations is unlikely to happen, as the Palestinian leadership has already turned down peace offerings from Israelis a total of five times.
The first was under the Peel Commission of 1936, appointed by the British, to investigate the cause for Arab unrest in British-occupied Mandatory Palestine. The commission concluded that the current situation was unworkable and proposed a two-state solution, which gave the Arab Palestinians the vast majority of the land in disputed territory and left Jerusalem as a British Mandated Zone that could be occupied by both races. The Palestinians roundly rejected this plan, with some groups arguing for one state, ruled by Palestinians with a Jewish minority.
In 1947, 10 years after Peel, the newly-formed United Nations was tasked with resolving the situation in the Mandate, and issued the UN Partition Plan for Palestine, or Resolution 181(II). The plan partitioned the Mandate, left Jerusalem as a UN-administrated international city, and was accepted by the Jewish Agency despite territorial limits on the size of the state. However, the Palestinians again rejected this offering as a scheme to dissect their country, and troops from surrounding Arab nations marched into Israel, beginning the First Arab-Israel War.
At the Camp David Summit, in 2000, US President Clinton oversaw negotiations between Israeli PM Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman Yasser Arafat (who was also chairman of the PLO). The PA were created by the 1993 Oslo Accords to govern the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The deals ended in stalemate, with clashes over territory, refugees, and the status of East Jerusalem negating any possibility of reconciliation. The failure to come to an agreement was widely attributed to Arafat, who, according to Clinton, simply walked away from the negotiating table without making a counter-offer or concessions, and resorted to terrorism in the form of the Second Intifada. Disappointment at the lack of resolution caused the fracture of the PLO as members abandoned it to join Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Most recently, in 2008, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert made concessions to PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas for a near total withdraw from the West Bank, even offering East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. Olmert quoted his decision to offer to withdraw from East Jerusalem as “the hardest day of his life.” Abbas refused the offer, as he was not allowed to study the requisite map, and the deal broke down as Olmert became embroiled in legal troubles. While some argue that Olmert could have never seen the deal through to competition as he lost political clout with his corruption charges, many see the rejection of the deal as another stake in Palestinian unwillingness to cooperate to find peace.
Ultimately, Trump’s decision makes logical sense. US diplomats in Israel have travelled regularly from the previous embassy location in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to conduct business. Not only is Jerusalem the spiritual capital of the Jewish faith, but is also the location of the presidential residence, government offices, Supreme Court, and Parliament (Knesset). Tel Aviv, while the financial and technological capital of Israel, is only the location of the US Embassy by choice, not by necessity. Almost all other nations maintain their embassies and presidential residence within the same city – why should Israel be prevented from this sovereign state of affairs? Additionally, the current embassy in Tel Aviv is plagued by security issues. Dan Kurtzer, US ambassador to Israel between 2001 and 2005 has called the building “absurd” and says that it “still has some issues in terms of security.”
While some may argue that Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is an act of incompetence, it is actually a demonstration of strength and a moral move. The Palestinians, as recently as 2008 before the election of Netanyahu, have refused to cooperate in finding a suitable two-state solution, and have rejected any offerings without any diplomatic concessions. Terrorist attacks and suicide bombings from state-sponsored terror group Hamas have embroiled the Gaza Strip and southern Israel in violence, with little hope for resolution. Trump acted on US legislation that has been lawfully passed for the past 20 years, and in his show of strength, he has given support to our greatest allies in the Middle East. The status quo that he disrupted was not an equilibrium of peace, but rather one of violence. This standstill must be broken for true peace to be brokered in the Middle East.