By recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital the U.S. president is boosting the settlers’ argument that in the long run, ‘facts on the ground’ are more important than diplomacy, and that Israel will eventually win legitimacy for its actions — even unilateral annexation.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan is said to have hesitated before ordering the IDF to conquer the Temple Mount and Jerusalem’s Old City in 1967. “What do I need this Vatican for,” he said at one meeting. But even the secular Dayan was swept by the wave of religious euphoria that took Israel after the war. A few weeks later, the government decided to annex the eastern part of the city, along with a sizable territory around it, including over 20 Palestinian towns and villages that had never been part of the city. The size of the annexed land was 10 times bigger than what the Jordanians defined as East Jerusalem during the 19 years they ruled over it.
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No country has recognized Israel’s unilateral annexation of the territory (and people) of Jerusalem; and since the Oslo process in the 1990s, it was commonly understood that the fate of the city would be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. To complicate things further, Israel didn’t grant East Jerusalemites citizenship; it has kept them as “permanent residents” – a legal status usually meant for immigrants, which deprives them of many rights (most notably, the purchase of state land and the participation in the general elections), and which can be revoked at any moment by the Interior Ministry.
Today, Palestinians make up over one-third of Jerusalem’s population. Jewish neighborhoods have spread mostly east, beyond the Green Line. In the Israeli political discourse this is simply “Jerusalem”; the rest of the world sees it as occupied land, and calls those neighborhoods settlements. Trump’s announcement will completely align U.S. policy with Israel’s positions.
Changes to the status quo in Jerusalem have led to violent outbursts in the past. The most obvious examples are the tunnel events in September 1996, which claimed the lives of dozens of Israelis and Palestinians and led to the Hebron agreement; Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, which started the Second Intifada; and most recently, the days of protest following Israel’s decision to install metal detectors at the entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque. It’s very difficult to predict what will happen this time, especially because protests in Jerusalem – where the Palestinian Authority is not allowed to operate, thus leaving a leadership vacuum – tend to be spontaneous and uncoordinated. Those protests should serve as a reminder, though, that the problem of Jerusalem is not just about stones and control over the holy sites; it is also about real people who live in their own city as second-class citizens.
Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is mostly a symbolic act, aimed at the Israeli public and its supporters in the U.S. (Trump will speak at 8 p.m. Jerusalem time, Israeli prime time, when local politicians usually choose to make special announcements. Somebody must have advised him how to maximize the political effect.) But much about Jerusalem and the peace process was always about symbolism, and this act is a big win for Netanyahu: it will remove one of the only incentives Israel ever had to negotiate with the Palestinians. The Trump administration will therefore be undermining its own goal of reviving the peace process, which seems more and more like lip service to the Saudis and the Egyptians than a serious effort aimed at reaching an agreement.
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are unique in the sense that the Palestinians come to the table empty handed – they have nothing to offer to Israel, no territory and no army that needs to be pushed away from Israel’s borders, as the Egyptians and the Syrians had. What Israel stands to receive from the Palestinians in a peace deal is legitimacy – legitimacy for its own existence, for its control over the Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem, for its borders (which aren’t defined even by the Israeli government), and perhaps even for some settlements blocs. This is why Yasser Arafat used to say that by concluding a deal, he would be handing Israel its real birth certificate. He never did.
Since the Camp David summit in 2000 (which broke down over Jerusalem), successive Israeli governments have reached the conclusion that the price of a deal with the Palestinians – even the most minimal agreement that any credible Palestinian leadership could muster – is simply too high for their taste, especially on territorial aspects, and particularly on Jerusalem. Those governments have therefore sought to unilaterally increase Israel’s legitimacy and the legitimacy of its control over some of the territory conquered in 1967. This is why it was so important for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to receive the Bush letters in exchange for the disengagement from Gaza, which, according to Israel’s understanding, recognized that the settlement blocs would remain part of the State of Israel under any sort of future agreement.
Unlike Sharon, who had to evacuate the Gaza Strip to get those letters, Netanyahu is winning Jerusalem for free, thanks simply to political developments in Washington and Palestinian weakness following the Arab Spring. By handing him one of the biggest trophies the peace process had to offer, Trump is giving Netanyahu (and Israel) even less of a reason to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians. Instead, he is boosting the settlers’ argument that in the long run “facts on the ground” are more important than diplomacy and politics, and that Israel will eventually win legitimacy for its actions – including any settlements or outposts it constructs – even if it has to wait 50 years. Now it will be very difficult to argue with this logic, and the Israeli political system is likely to correct course again to the right, as it has over the past decade, whenever the world accepted another aspect of the occupation and its status quo as legitimate.