On Dec. 1, it was reported that President Trump plans to move the United States Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The move, which originated as one of then-candidate Trump’s campaign promises, would mark the first time that a country would place their embassy in the Israeli city of Jerusalem. In effect, the transition would signal that the United States believes Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, is the rightful capital of Israel.
As it stands, Jerusalem is controlled by Israel, though its sovereignty over East Jerusalem is disputed by the Palestinian Authority and members of the international community. During the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, otherwise known as the Six-Day War, Israel—despite having been attacked by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan—captured Gaza, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. The latter was particularly meaningful for the Israelis because it signaled that, for the first time in Israel’s young history, Jews would have access to their holiest site, the Western Wall. However, also in East Jerusalem is the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, some of the holiest sites for Muslims. Since the conclusion of the Six-Day War, Palestinians and many in the International community have not recognized Israel’s sovereignty over East Jerusalem, despite the city being the de jure capital of Israel.
Even though it might not be stated explicitly, moving the United States’ embassy to Jerusalem serves as a de facto recognition that Israel’s capital would be the entirety of Jerusalem. Although there are reports that President Trump may recognize only West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, any announcement is sure to cause a stir that could have both positive and negative effects on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
By moving the embassy to Jerusalem, President Trump would benefit from an immense opportunity to positively affect the currently stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Alon Ben-Meir of Huffington Post contends that President Trump could simultaneously purchase land in East Jerusalem with the intent to build a future Palestinian embassy. The United States has for years owned the land on which it plans to build its new embassy in West Jerusalem, but the president has signed a waiver every six months delaying the actual construction of the embassy. However, by replicating the same process for the Palestinians, the president can reaffirm the United States’ commitment to a two-state solution.
As a result of purchasing property in East Jerusalem, there would likely be considerably less terrorism in the country, as the Palestinian Authority would not want to see any actions disrupt the peace process. In the past, the Palestinian Authority has arguably been complacent or even guilty of propagating terror, but with the possibility of peace looking more realistic, the Palestinian Authority might have a heightened desire to prevent talks from derailing due to terrorism.
Furthermore, making positive steps towards a final-status agreement would go a long way to satiate American allies in the Arab world. If Arab allies who either refuse to recognize Israel or establish diplomatic ties have reason to believe that a two-state solution is beginning to look likely, they might be more willing to work with the United States on other matters since America’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often makes diplomacy difficult.
Even if President Trump does not decide to purchase land in East Jerusalem, the embassy would become a bargaining chip. President Trump is known for taking hardline stances and using them to negotiate down to a final agreement that is closer to his position than that of the other side. The president could use the embassy as leverage to draw the Palestinians to the table, though such an outcome would be improbable and would likely lead to an uprising.
If no parallel action is taken in Jerusalem, the transition is likely to cause another uprising, another intifada. The first two intifadas were birthed from Palestinian frustration over Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza and from discontent over the Oslo Accords. The third intifada, known as the “Stabbing Intifada,” was caused by Palestinian frustration regarding the Temple Mount. The “Stabbing Intifada” is the closest comparison to what could happen as a result of an abrupt policy change. Unsupported rumors that Israel was planning to close and destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque led to a string of attacks from Palestinians on Israeli soldiers and civilians. All told, the wave of violence claimed the lives of 38 Israelis and over 218 Palestinians. Beyond the fatalities, there were thousands of injuries (mostly Palestinian) as a result of the intifada. The “Stabbing Intifada” was undoubtedly reactive, for Palestinians responded to what they believed was an immediate threat to their ability to practice their Muslim faith. Moving the embassy would have a similar effect as Palestinians would see an immediate threat to their potential future state, and, consequently, the risk of another intifada would rise.
The United States taking such a firm stance on an enormously controversial issue may signal that America is not committed to serving as a fair partner for peace. While many Israelis and some Americans argue that believing the embassy should be in Jerusalem is not a provocative view, it would undoubtedly indicate that the United States is committed solely to the Israeli narrative. If such is the case, acting as a fair arbiter for the U.S. would prove problematic.
Additionally, moving the embassy to Jerusalem threatens to disrupt the fledgling partnership between Israel and Saudi Arabia. As a result of mutual interest in seeing Iran’s influence in the Middle East lessened, Israel and Saudi Arabia have begun working together on various diplomatic and potential military initiatives. Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in seeing the Palestinian Authority remain in power as an alternative source of authority like Hamas or Hezbollah would likely be a proxy of Iran. If America moves its embassy to Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia would protest because the move would embolden Hamas supporters, potentially jeopardizing the Palestinian Authority’s hold on the Palestinian Territories. That said, even if Hamas doesn’t garner any support as a result of moving the embassy, the Palestinian Authority would have to embrace more extreme philosophies, which would be objectively detrimental to the peace process.
If President Trump decides to move the embassy to Jerusalem, the action will likely set off a violent uprising—that is, unless the decision is paired with an effort to satiate the Palestinians and move the peace process forwards. Ultimately, President Trump must decide between fulfilling a campaign promise and truly making progress to solve the seemingly eternal conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. While the embassy issue presents innumerable complexities, one thing is clear: whatever decision President Trump makes will have lasting ramifications for Israel, the Palestinians, and the greater Middle East.