Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem: What it Means and Why it Matters
President Trump recently announced his intentions to move the United States Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby recognizing Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel. The purpose of this article is to give you a brief overview of what this decision means and why it matters.
Why is Jerusalem so important?
To effectively explain the significance behind the President's decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, you first must understand why Jerusalem is such an important city.
Jerusalem is a city inhabited by Jews, Muslims, and Christians and is religiously significant to all three of the world’s Abrahamic faiths. It is home to dozens of meaningful religious sights to Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
Below is an oversimplified table that lays out the significance of some of the most holy sites in the Holy City:
One City, Two Capitals?
The religious significance attached to the city has motivated both Israel and Palestine to declare it as their official capital. However, until President Trump's announcement, no country has ever recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (1)
International recognition of the State of Palestine is more complicated. It has been recognized as a country by 137 of 193 member states of the UN, but not by the United States. (2) And even though other countries recognize its independence, the Palestinians do not have full sovereignty over land that belongs to them dictated by international law. Nevertheless, Jerusalem is also the proclaimed capital of Palestine. (3)
Jews, Christians, and Muslims all live in Jerusalem. As of 2014, roughly 850,000 people lived in Jerusalem, with Jews making up 61% of the population, Muslims 36%, and Christians 1%. (4)
The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian. In addition to the fact that here are no physical boundaries separating the different quarters, the Old City is incredibly compact. This means that religiously, culturally, and socially diverse people are almost living right on top of one another. Living in such close quarters creates a palpable sense of tension in the city, which sometimes escalates into violence.
Why Moving the US Embassy is Controversial
Total Reversal on Decades of US Policy
First of all, President Trump's decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and thus recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital represents a major change in US foreign policy related to Israel and Palestine. The US position on the issue has always been that Jerusalem's status should be negotiated directly by Israelis and Palestinians as part of a final peace deal. (5)
In addition, the United States has also favored a two-state solution in the region, meaning the establishment of a fully independent Israel and a separate, fully independent Palestine. The US has also stated disapproval of years of Israeli settlement building in what is legally supposed to be sovereign Palestinian territory. Although the wording from administration to administration may vary, the US has upheld these views for decades, regardless of which political party holds the White House or Congress. (6)
Furthermore, no other country in the world currently considers Jerusalem the capital of Israel. Several global institutions and world leaders, including some of the United States' closest allies, have dismissed the move as dangerous and detrimental to establishing peace in the region, including:
Theresa May, Prime Minister of Great Britain
Emmanuel Macron, President of France
Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany
Paolo Gentiloni, Prime Minister of Italy (7)
Violence in the Middle East and Beyond
Because Muslims, Jews, and Christians live side-by-side in Jerusalem, religious and political tensions often turn violent. Moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv, a city that experiences much less violence, to a city that experiences so much would undoubtedly put the lives of American diplomats at risk.
In the meantime, the security situation within Israel and Palestine remains precarious. Angry protests have the potential to lead to skirmishes or even full-out war. Hamas, the Palestinian terror organization that currently controls the Gaza Strip, has called on Palestinians to launch another "intifada," or uprising against Israel.
President Trump’s decision has also angered the Muslim world and risks further damaging fragile relationships with Middle Eastern countries. (8) In a region that has seen increased instability since the Arab Spring, this decision has caused protests and demonstrations in Muslim countries all across the world. (9)
Threat to the Peace Process
The geopolitical status of Jerusalem has been one of the most salient issues in peace negotiations over the last several decades. Many believe that it’s political status, and how it should be divided, should be determined by Israelis and Palestinians within the context of peace negotiations, not by the President of the United States. (10) The decision to move the Embassy thus undercuts and sabotages any peace process the US would likely be a part of during the Trump Administration and possibly beyond. (11)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the move would not take place until at least 2019 because of the logistics involved. (12)
In the meantime, terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda will likely use the move as a recruitment tool and motivation for terror attacks on the United States. (13)
However, opposition to the move remains high within the international community and it is very unlikely that any other countries will follow President Trump's example and move their own embassies to Jerusalem or officially recognize the city as Israel's capital.