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7 December 2017

Why is Donald Trump moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and what does it mean?

Trump promised to move the embassy to “the eternal capital for the Jewish people, Jerusalem”.

By Julia Rampen

Donald Trump’s latest controversial move takes him deep into the Middle East.

What is Donald Trump doing now?

He has formally recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and plans to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 

So Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel? 

It depends who you ask. Israelis have said it is since 1950. The Knesset, or parliament, moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem the same year.

But this wasn’t how the international community planned it. In 1947, the United Nations drew up a proposal to partition Palestine and allow for the creation of Israel. In the plan, Jerusalem was under international administration. 

Events overtook the plan, however. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, fought between the new state of Israel and its Arab neighbours, Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan. In the 1967 war, again between Israel and its Arab neighbours, Israel captured the whole of Jerusalem. 

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As this suggests, the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have been pretty much sidelined. However, the official Palestinian position is that Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine.

What does the US think?

Although the US is often thought of as Israel’s biggest ally, the idea of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is so controversial that even Republican presidents like George W Bush have not recognised it as such. Successive US governments felt that to do so would to be jeopardise any claim to impartiality in Israel-Palestine peace talks. 

Senior US Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, has written to Trump imploring him not to go down this route. She argued: “If you break with this long tradition of bipartisan foreign policy, you’ll erode American credibility as an unbiased mediator, alienate us from our international partners – such as Jordan – and undermine any remaining hope for a two-state solution.”

However, voters seem to feel differently. During his campaign, Trump promised to move the embassy to “the eternal capital for the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”

What does the UK think?

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told journalists: “We view the reports that we have heard with concern because we think Jerusalem obviously should be part of the final settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.” 

What are the risks?

Trump could alienate a lot of leaders of Muslim majority countries. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is not backward about coming forward, called Jerusalem as Israel’s capital a “red line” for Muslims. However, the response from these countries is likely to be restricted to cutting diplomatic ties to Israel.

More seriously, as Feinstein noted in her letter, the second intifada, which lasted five years and killed thousands, was sparked by a riot after Ariel Sharon, then an opposition leader, visited Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, considered one  of the holiest sites in Islam. Trump’s announcement is expected to foment unrest in the streets, with US embassies around the world advised to increase their security.

Another – Trump’s supporters would argue hypothetical – risk is that a plan for a peaceful resolution to the decades-old conflict will be derailed. For many years, the mantra has been of a two-state solution. Trump has already suggested he’s open to a “one-state” solution, and this move seems to kick the peace process further into the sand.

What has happened so far?

The UN security council is expected to hold an urgent meeting on Friday to discuss the US decision, while the Arab League meets on Saturday. US ally Saudi Arabi has called the move “unjustified and irresponsible”.

On Thursday, Palestinians are expected to hold a series of strikes to protest the decision. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated the Palestinian claim that Jerusalem was the “eternal capital of the state of Palestine”.