Late yesterday evening, ‘a senior administration official’ confirmed that the United States will today recognise Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. Given that the policy is to be announced by Donald Trump, a volatile airhead presiding over a highly fractious government, it’s still far from clear how – or even whether – Washington will put forward a new position. But if, as expected, the US does proceed with this measure, the physical relocation of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem will be the least of it.
For seventy years, the US has, at least formally, aligned its position on Jerusalem with that of the international community and international law. According to UN Resolution 181 recommending the partition of Palestine, passed by the General Assembly on 29 November 1947, the Holy City was ‘established as a corpus separatum under a special international regime’. Israel’s conquest of West Jerusalem during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and Jordan’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1950 were never recognised. Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967; in 1980 the Knesset passed a law claiming that ‘Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.’ Security Council Resolution 478 declared the measure ‘null and void’.
In other words, pending the establishment of either an international administration as specified in the partition resolution or an alternative arrangement (such as a peace agreement) endorsed by the UN, it has been a foundational principle of the international community’s approach to Jerusalem since 1947 not to recognise any claim to sovereignty over the city, in whole or in part. The principle has been endorsed and applied by every US administration since 1948. It’s the reason that most states, including the US, established their embassies to Israel in Tel Aviv rather than West Jerusalem.
US presidential candidates in recent decades have habitually proclaimed their intention to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Holy City and relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem, but such displays of political correctness have until now failed to survive contact with reality. Such a dramatic break with seven decades of US and indeed global policy, seeking to unilaterally rewrite international law and predetermine the outcome of eventual Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, would constitute an act of premeditated political pyromania with unforeseen local, regional and global consequences.
There’s an additional twist: in 1989, Israel leased a plot of land to the US on which to build its Jerusalem embassy. Extensive research by Walid Khalidi demonstrated not only that at least 70 per cent of the land is confiscated Palestinian refugee property, but also that many of the heirs of the original owners are today US citizens.
The US Congress in 1995 passed legislation recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and requiring the government to move the US embassy there. Urged on by Binyamin Netanyahu (then Israel’s opposition leader) and AIPAC, both of whom were determined to scuttle the Oslo process, the measure passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. The current crisis exists only because the White House is required to sign a waiver every six months postponing the relocation of the embassy, and this time Trump hasn’t done it.
Given the current level of chaos and conflict in the Middle East, it isn’t easy to predict how the various Arab and regional states will respond, and what the consequences for their rulers will be if – as widely expected – they fail, individually and collectively, to provide an immediate, forceful and energetic response. The frantic appeals to Trump by his closest Arab allies indicate they are genuinely frightened.
American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem would send an unmistakable signal that Washington rejects not only the two-state settlement paradigm but also the Palestinian right to national self-determination in favour of permanent Israeli domination and Palestinian dispossession. It would also indicate that Washington endorses only Jewish and rejects Christian and Muslim rights to the Holy City. The silver lining is that it may lead to the final termination of fruitless Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy under American auspices, which has served only to consolidate Israeli control over the occupied territories.
As for the Palestinian response, at the popular level Palestinians will presumably want their leadership, at the very least, to annul the Oslo Accords, withdraw its 1993 recognition of Israel, and sever both relations with Washington and security collaboration with Israel. Should Mahmoud Abbas seek to avoid political confrontation, or order his security forces to prevent Palestinians from taking matters into their own hands, it could cost him dearly. Yet few people expect him to break meaningfully with either the US or Israel.
The impact on the ‘peace process’, however, will be negligible, for the simple reason that it has long ceased to exist and there are no serious indications of its revival. Trump’s answer to Metternich, his son-in-law and czar of everything Jared Kushner, has so far achieved precisely nothing. It perhaps says all you need to know about them that he and his team – all active supporters of Israel’s settlement enterprise in the occupied Palestinian territories – appear to believe this change of policy will contribute to a Middle Eastern version of the Concert of Europe.