Jerusalem — it should be obvious, but it isn’t

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Does anyone need to recognize that Washington is the capital of the US? That Paris is the capital of France? That London is the capital of the UK? So why is it such a big deal that President Trump has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel? Here are some reasons why it’s not obvious:

  • Everything concerning Jerusalem is a big deal.
  • What you mean when you say “Jerusalem” isn’t clear.
  • Jerusalem wasn’t part of the Jewish state according to the 1947 UN partition.
  • Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their capital, but Israel annexed that section, including the Old City.
  • It’s a consensus view that changing anything in Jerusalem harms peace efforts.

So, let’s take these one at a time:

Jerusalem is the top hot spot of the Middle East, or at least it was until the Arab Spring moved the focus elsewhere.

A plateau at the edge of the walled Old City is home today to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site. They were built atop the ruins of the two biblical Temples, making it Judaism’s holiest site. Jesus preached there, so Christians also have a close tie.

According to an arrangement made just after Israel captured the site in the 1967 war, Israel is in charge of security, and the Muslim Wakf handles day-to-day arrangements. That distinction has blurred over the past three decades as Palestinians have turned the holy site into a political tinderbox through riots and attacks whenever they feel slighted. They hurl rocks at Jews worshiping at the Western Wall below and confront Israeli security forces, who sometimes storm the site in response.

The Second Intifada, or violent Palestinian uprising, began after Ariel Sharon, at the time an opposition leader in Israel’s parliament, visited the site in 2000. Later it emerged that Palestinians were planning the violence for months in advance, but the provocative visit was a good trigger.

Four years earlier, the opening of a tunnel along a buried part of the Western Wall was enough to set off a surge of Palestinian riots that killed nearly 100 people.

This year, after Palestinians smuggled weapons onto the site and used them to kill two Israeli police officers, Israel installed metal detectors at the gates. Palestinians rioted, and Israel backed down, removing the detectors.

So, given that history, a change in the status of the city, even on paper, is a big deal.

Jerusalem has more than one municipal boundary, so just referring to “Jerusalem” is ambiguous.

In the 1948-49 war that followed Israel’s creation, when Arab nations sent seven armies in to throw the Jews into the sea, Israel took control of the western part of Jerusalem. A barbed wire barrier split the city for 18 years, until the 1967 war, when Israel captured the rest of the city, Arab villages around it and the attached West Bank. Unlike the West Bank, though, Israel annexed East Jerusalem, including the Old City, and then built new neighborhoods for Jews in a ring around the city.

One of the many politically charged battles I lost at the Associated Press (AP) was opposition to calling the new neighborhoods “settlements,” though they were built on land claimed by both sides. My reason was that the term “settlement” conjures up an image of four trailers on a wind-swept West Bank hilltop, while the new neighborhoods each house tens of thousands of Israelis in permanent apartment blocks. Whatever…

President Trump did not use the terms West Jerusalem or East Jerusalem in his address, though he did say that borders and sovereignty must be decided in negotiations. That was enough to allow people on all sides to interpret his words any way they want, and many insist that he has recognized Israeli sovereignty over both parts of the city. Don’t confuse me with facts, in other words.

Under the 1947 partition plan, Jerusalem was supposed to be part of an ill-defined “international zone,” stretching south to include Bethlehem.

Israel accepted the plan despite all its shortcomings, but the Arabs rejected it and sent in their armies. The result was a divided Jerusalem. Like the cease-fire line between Israel and the West Bank, it is just that–not a border.  And as you can see from this map, there is a swath of no-man’s land running through the city, just to complicate matters.

The map is a 1956 UN copy of the map on which Moshe Dayan himself drew the cease-fire lines with a wide marker, wide enough to seed disputes over territory if anyone actually considered the lines a border. The historic map, signed by Dayan and a Jordanian official, hangs in my backyard office for ready reference.

Despite the lack of clarity, the terms “West Jerusalem” and “East Jerusalem” are part of the lexicon these days, but the presence of the Old City in the eastern part complicates everything.

The hilltop referred to by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary is a religious site, and religions do not do well when it comes to compromise. Israel insists it will not give up control of its holiest site, and Palestinians insist they won’t give up control of their holy site. It’s the same site, of course. Given good will, there would be ways to finesse this, but there’s no good will these days–just the opposite. After many rounds of failed peace talks, including two in which Israel offered the Palestinians a state in the West Bank and Gaza, with joint control over the Jerusalem hilltop, but the Palestinians broke off the talks, there are no serious prospects for resolving this dispute with another round of negotiations.

That calls into question the last point, that any change in Jerusalem harms prospects for peace negotiations.

We have seen that bilateral negotiations with US backing have not brought peace. It doesn’t matter here who is to blame–the fact remains that the peace process reached its logical conclusion twice, with an offer of a viable Palestinian state on the table, but the talks did not result in peace. It’s arguable that quite the opposite, they brought escalations of violence.

So, there may be reasons to oppose moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, but saying that it harms peace negotiations is either intentional smoke-screening or ignorance of history.

Instead, critics of the move are warning that the US move could trigger violence, even a war. This is the place to point out that the Palestinians are trapped from several different directions. They are trapped by corrupt, inept leaders who line their pockets with money meant to build a viable society. They are trapped by a refugee crisis that they themselves, with the eager prodding of the UN, perpetuated for political reasons, but it has now backfired and left them with no choice but to stick to seven decades worth of worthless promises that the refugees and their four generations of descendants will “return” to villages in Israel that no longer exist. They are trapped by their only available reaction to slights, perceived and real–violence and terrorism. In that they are goaded on, wittingly and unwittingly, by world leaders who warn that any step by anyone besides the Arabs will inevitably spark violence, and therefore such steps must never, never be taken.

President Trump’s pronouncement does not change anything on the ground. He did not declare Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. That is not in his power. Israel did that 70 years ago. Trump recognized this reality. It does not come at the expense of the Palestinians, unless they make it so.

It becomes a test for the Palestinians. Will there be a few days of demonstrations, perhaps a few attacks, and then back to daily life? Will this be the time that violence, accompanied by the usual threats and demonization of Israel in world bodies, was not their response, even though there is at present no other response available to them? Or will they succeed in setting the region on fire, reinforcing the view that nothing can ever be done here, because the Palestinians will respond with violence?

And will Israel puff out its chest and lord it over the weakened Palestinians some more, or will it seek new ways to lighten their burdens?

Much of the world, including parts of the Jewish world, believes that this is the wrong time for such a US declaration. That time would be only after there is a permanent peace accord. President Trump and much of Israel counters that there is no wrong time to do the right thing.

Recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is the right thing, if only because it is indeed Israel’s capital and has been for seven decades. What we do with that, how we proceed, will be the biggest test of all.

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