President Trump’s decision – of which he informed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a telephone call today – to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has implications which too few people in the West and in the US especially recognise.
Jerusalem has hosted Israel’s government and parliament ever since the Israeli army took over formerly Jordanian controlled east Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Days War. In a sense moving the US embassy to Jerusalem simply recognises what has been the reality of the last fifty years.
That is however to ignore the huge symbolism of this step.
For Israelis – and for many Jewish people elsewhere – Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital is obvious and sacrosanct.
Jerusalem was the capital first of the united Kingdom of Israel and Judah following its capture by King David, and then of the Kingdom of Judah, until the sacking of the city by the Babylonians in 586 BC.
During this period the First Temple – destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC – was built in Jerusalem by David’s son Solomon.
Jerusalem was then restored to Jewish control by the Persian King Cyrus the Great later in the sixth century, making it possible for the Second Temple to be built.
Though there were periods thereafter when Jerusalem was under the political control of the Greeks and Romans, the Second Temple – hugely increased in size by Herod the Great – continued to be the centre of Jewish worship until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
Throughout this period Jerusalem remained the centre of the Jewish people’s religious, political and intellectual life.
A last attempt to regain control of Jerusalem and to rebuild the Temple was made in the Second Century AD by the Jewish rebel Simon Bar-Kokhba. However following the suppression of Bar-Kokhba’s revolt by the Romans Jerusalem fell successively under Roman, Byzantine, Muslim Arab, Crusader, Ottoman Turkish and eventually British control, until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
Throughout this long period the Jewish people never forgot their connection to Jerusalem, which remains emotionally powerful for them to this day.
Given the decisive importance of Jerusalem in forming the Jewish identity, it could not be otherwise.
Suffice to say that for the vast majority of Israelis and for most Jews a state of Israel which does not have Jerusalem as its capital is unthinkable, and the whole project of establishing a Jewish state on the territory of the former British Mandate of Palestine would make no sense without it.
This view is not held by Jews alone. Many evangelical Christians – especially in the US – who have been brought up on the Bible also share it. So do many secular people in the West.
There is no doubt that Donald Trump is one of those people. Throughout his brief political career he has made know his deep affection for Israel and for the Jewish people, which has unquestionably been deepened by the marriage of his daughter Ivanka to Jared Kushner and her conversion to Judaism.
Beyond this there is unquestionably the political calculation that much of Donald Trump’s electoral support comes from evangelical Christians, who strongly support the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
It is very easy to see how a US President under the sort of political siege which Donald Trump has been placed under might wish to do something such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem which he may well calculate will shore up the support of his electoral base.
The decision nonetheless is one which is fraught with dangerous implications, and which is both wrong and unwise.
Firstly – though this is something which will probably not concern Donald Trump or his supporters overmuch – recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is contrary to international law. UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 2334 leave no room for doubt about this.
Far more importantly, if the status of Jerusalem is a matter that is critically important for Israelis and Jews, it is also one which is critically important for Muslims and Arabs.
The Prophet Muhammad in his lifetime already recognised Jerusalem as a Holy City in light of its association with the Biblical prophets – David, Solomon, Elijah and Jesus – who are recognised as prophets by Islam. Before Muhammad’s cleansing of the Ka’ba in Mecca, Jerusalem was the first Direction of Prayer for Muslims in Muhammad’s lifetime.
More importantly for Muslims, Jerusalem is the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven to speak with God, the prophets and the archangels.
The relevant authority for this in the Quran – which it is important to remember Muslims regard as the unmediated Word of God – is verse 17:1
Glory to Him Who carried His servant by night from the Sacred Masjid (ie. the Great Mosque in Mecca – AM) to the Furthest Masjid (the furthest mosque – AM), whose precincts We have blessed, to show him of Our wonders! He it is Who is All-Hearing, All-Seeing
That the location of the Furthest Masjid referred to in this verse is Jerusalem was according to Hadith (ie. Muhammad’s own teaching) confirmed by Muhammad himself.
Verse 17.1 of the Quran is held by Muslims to refer to what is known as the Night Journey (al-’Isrā’ wal-Mi‘rāj) whereby Muhammad was transported in a single day in the year 630 AD to Jerusalem by the miraculous steed Buraq, and from thence ascended to Heaven where he spoke with the archangels, the prophets and God before returning to earth. The place of Muhammad’s ascent is identified by Muslims as the Al-Aqsa mosque.
The Night Journey is one of the most important events for Muslims in the life of the Prophet, and is one of the most significant events in the Islamic Calendar. As result of the Night Journey Jerusalem is considered by Muslims to be the third holiest site (after Mecca and Medina) in Islam.
Beyond its religious significance for Muslims, for the Palestinian Arabs Jerusalem is their greatest city and the capital of the country – Palestine – to which they belong, and which ever since the fall of the Ottoman empire they have always aspired to create.
Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is therefore as emotionally offensive to Muslims and Arabs (especially Palestinian Arabs) and it is emotionally important for Israelis and Jews.
Every single attempt to mediate a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ever since the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan has recognised this fact.
That plan envisaged that Jerusalem would not become the capital of either Israel or of the Palestinian state that it proposed, but should instead be separately administered as a holy city important to Jews, Muslims and Christians under international control.
All other plans and proposals to negotiate a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict proposed since then have struggled with the issue of Jerusalem, which is recognised as the central and most intractable issue of the whole conflict. It has always been understood that a peaceful end to the conflict is only possible if some mutually acceptable compromise over the status of Jerusalem can be agreed.
De facto recognition by the US of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, even if it only comes in the form of the physical relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, threatens to make achieving such a compromise impossible.
Given the enormous emotional pull of Jerusalem for Israelis and for the Jewish people, it now becomes all but impossible to see how they will ever accept a compromise on this issue given that the US – the world’s most powerful country – has now de facto recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
However de facto recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital now all but guarantees that whatever peace proposal is put forward which is acceptable to Israelis will be rejected by a critical mass of Muslims and Arabs.
Given the emotional and religious significance of Jerusalem for Muslims and Arabs, it is inconceivable that most of them will accept a peace proposal which leaves Jerusalem under Israeli control as Israel’s capital.
That all but guarantees that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – and the conflict between Israel, the Arabs and the broader Muslim world – will continue indefinitely.
At best there may be periods of ‘cold peace’ ie. periods when the conflict goes into temporary remission. However as night follows day after every such period will end, with the conflict sooner or later flaring up again.
Beyond this there is the issue of the radicalisation this decision will cause across the Muslim world.
It is not generally acknowledged in the West, but the 1967 Six Days War and the capture by Israel of formerly Jordanian east Jerusalem was the watershed moment when radical political Islam began to take over from Arab nationalism as the dominant political movement in the Arab world and the Middle East.
For Muslims Israel’s capture in 1967 of the last remaining part of Jerusalem under Arab and Muslim control – including the territory of the Al-Aqsa mosque from whence the Prophet ascended to Heaven – was a profound shock.
Though it took some time for the effect of this to become visible – as such things always do – the rise of radical political Islam and eventually of violent Jihadism was the result.
De facto recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is bound to give this process further impetus.
The immediate beneficiaries will not be the violent Jihadi groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, who have shown no interest in fighting Israel, and whose atrocities have discredited them in Arab and Muslim eyes.
It will be Iran and Hezbollah: the Islamic Republic and the Muslim movement who have been the most consistent leaders of the so-called “Axis of Resistance” opposing Israel and the West.
In other words, at a time when the US and Israel and their allies have been seeking to reduce Iranian influence in the Middle East and the Arab world, Donald Trump has just taken a step which will make Iran’s popularity and its influence in the Middle East and the Arab world still greater.
Inevitably it is a step which will also undermine the position of those Arab leaders – first and foremost the Saudis – who are allies of the US.
Though these leaders have shown no interest in challenging Israel – on the contrary in the case of the Saudis they are in de facto alliance with it – the Arab and Muslim populations over which they rule are known to feel very differently.
With the Middle East becoming increasingly unstable, with US influence diminishing, and with Iranian influence growing, Donald Trump has just taken a step which will make the lives of these leaders more difficult.
Lastly, it is very difficult to see how the US’s already threadbare reputation as an honest broker in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can long survive this move.
As is always the case it will take some time for this to become apparent, but more and more Muslims and Arabs – including the leaders of the traditionally pro-US conservative Arab states – are going to struggle to explain to themselves how they can continue to accept the US as a mediator in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict when it has de facto recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
That will inevitably further reduce the US’s role in the peace process, and by extension its already diminishing influence in the Middle East.
All in all Donald Trump has just done both the US’s position in the Middle East and the long-term prospects of peace there major and possibly irretrievable damage.
Not bad for a single day’s work.