In early December, President Donald Trump announced a dramatic shift in US foreign policy: The Trump administration would henceforth recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and initiate plans to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The decision upended decades of established policy and drew swift global condemnation. East Jerusalem, previously under Palestinian control, has been occupied by Israel since the conclusion of the Six-Day War in 1967, but the international community has consistently rejected Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as the “undivided capital” of the Jewish state.
Critics of Trump’s decision argue that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will do irreparable damage to the peace process between Israel and Palestine. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis both reportedly warned Trump against the move, just as they did when Trump decertified the Iran deal. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called the move a “reward to Israel” that “has disqualified [the United States] from any possible role in the peace process.” Anti-Trump protests have flared up in the region over Trump’s announcement.
While upsetting international norms has been one of Trump’s specialties in his first year in the Oval Office, this decision was not made at random. This decision may prove to be one of the most controversial of Trump’s presidency (which has certainly seen plenty of controversy), but it also has a legitimate shot at reinitiating the stalled peace process between Palestine and Israel.
Accepting Jerusalem’s advantageous reality
Jerusalem has technically always been the capital of Israel, despite the international community’s refusal to acknowledge it as such. Jerusalem west of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War armistice line was considered Israel’s capital, but it was not declared to be so because the UN believed that the entire Jerusalem area ought to be a “corpus separatum” or a “separate body” governed by the international community due to its widespread religious significance. This vision was never realized because the Arab League rejected the UN’s partition proposal, which led to the 1948 war. After Israel annexed all of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel’s aggression replaced the corpus separatum doctrine as the international community’s reason for refusing to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
As a result of this complicated historical and geopolitical situation, Israel has been denied its right as a sovereign nation to determine its own capital—first by the corpus separatum doctrine and then by international condemnation of its annexation of Jerusalem at large. While the continued occupation of West Jerusalem should still be contended (more on that later), Trump’s announcement shuts the door on decades of US foreign policy predicated on a false vision of an internationally governed Jerusalem and empowers Israel to make decisions as an autonomous nation. In short, Trump is recognizing the reality of the situation in Jerusalem instead of clinging to a past that never really existed. In addition, Trump is actually abiding by US law: in 1995 Congress voted to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; this year, Congress reaffirmed that vote.
Previous presidents had refrained from declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel to prevent disrupting peace talks. In doing so, they have essentially perpetuated a false concept that has survived since Israel’s origins as a country. But although Trump dabbles in misrepresentation and falsification, he finds reality beneficial in the case of Jerusalem—perhaps because it allows him to push forward Israel and Palestine along the long and tiring road to peace.
Rebooting the Israel-Palestine peace process
Trump’s decision represents a critical rejection of the so-called “peace process” between Israel and Palestine. The Palestine-Israel conflict and its peace process have seemed like unsolvable problems since the mid-twentieth century. The Oslo Accords of 1993, in which Israel and Palestine pledged to recognize one another and publicly work towards an actionable solution to their conflict, were a good starting point but failed to push the peace process into a final status agreement. Such an agreement, often termed, “land for peace,” would establish an autonomous Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and an end to military attacks on Israel.
But the promises of the accords stalled due to mutual distrust and anger; when President Clinton tried to reignite final-status talks at the Camp David Summit of 2000, he too failed to bridge the gap between Israel’s maximal offer and Palestine’s minimal price for peace. The Second Intifada, an uprising of Palestinians against their perceived Israeli oppressors, began in earnest shortly thereafter, killing thousands and delegitimizing the premises of the Oslo Accords—and with them, the fundamental promise of the peace process itself. While the violence has toned down since then, the threat of it continues to overshadow possibilities for peace.
To say that the Israelis or the Palestinians are solely to blame for the failure of their peace process would be an oversimplification of the deep history behind their divergent positions. But the peace process has undeniably failed to realize its goals. Over time, the “peace process” has sadly become more and more like corpus separatum: an abstract concept that could theoretically create peace and stability, but has never progressed towards genuine implementation.
Reimagining Jerusalem’s role in the process
Not only has the idea of a peace process lost its worth, but Jerusalem as a centerpiece of that process has lost its allure too. Jerusalem has shifted from being a point of geopolitical contention in the eyes of onlookers to a weighty narrative tool. The conflict over Jerusalem’s status always creates instability and turmoil when it resurfaces, but Jerusalem itself is no longer as valuable to those involved as rhetoric about Jerusalem is. Both Israel and Palestine certainly have religious and emotional attachments to the city, but discussions revolving around Jerusalem have devolved into each side invoking their claims to Jerusalem to propagate their competing narratives, not to find a peaceable solution to their problems.
Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is an attempt to reverse the devaluation of Jerusalem and reassert its secular importance as the capital of a sovereign nation. By acknowledging Jerusalem as such, the Trump administration is (though from a pro-Israel position) respecting Jerusalem’s worth as a tangible center of government, not simply as a rhetorical device employed to stir up the masses on the Israeli or Palestinian sides of the issue. Both Israel and Palestine ought to heed Trump’s decision as a critique of their own inability to find a peaceful solution that elevates Jerusalem’s stature rather than shrinking it, which the two sides are both guilty of.
How Trump’s decision can make peace possible
Most importantly, Trump is not trying to end the possibilities for peace between Israel and Palestine, as many in the international community and in Palestine have suggested. Rather, he is trying to reboot the peace process, with his verdict on Jerusalem as the new starting point. Although Israel claims Jerusalem to be its “undivided” capital, Trump did not use such specific terminology. He also said that the United States is “not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders.”
It would have been helpful if Trump’s speech had exhibited greater attention to detail by referencing only West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as has historically been the case. But his speech does demonstrate that the status of West Jerusalem, which has never been in doubt, should not be determined by the status of East Jerusalem, which remains occupied by Israel. The United States’ acknowledgment of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, thanks to Trump’s ambiguous word choice, does not exclude the possibility of a certain part of Jerusalem also being the capital of Palestine—nor does it exclude the possibility of a two-state solution.
Although his decision has drawn widespread international rebuke and Palestinian anger, Trump has positioned himself in an advantageous situation to support peace. He has, in essence, gained credibility with Israel (perhaps enough to elicit a future favor) without explicitly or implicitly denying Palestine’s claims. That could give him the leverage to reignite the peace process (cutting Palestinian aid funding, though, is most assuredly not a good idea to achieve that).
Peace is not dead, but it will not be easy
Trump’s announcement does not legitimize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. Instead, it recognizes the reality of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without destroying the potential for an acceptable peace between Israel and Palestine. Peace is not possible without guaranteeing the self-determination of both parties. Accepting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a daring move by Trump, but also a necessary one towards restarting a stalled and dead-in-the-water peace process. While it is fair to question whether Trump himself sincerely believes that his decision can aid peace prospects (given his ulterior motive to fulfill a campaign promise), Vice President Mike Pence reportedly advocated for the move. Pence’s support indicates that his administration does view Jerusalem’s recognition as a peace-building opportunity despite its perceived counterintuitiveness.
We should all be empathetic to the Palestinian cause and be aware that, emotionally and psychologically, it is difficult for many onlookers like us to fully grasp their pain. At the same time, the international community should implore Palestine to view Trump’s decision as a gateway to a new peace process with real potential for reconciliation—even if that process brings inevitably difficult choices.
The featured image in this article is used under the Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.
Aman Tiku is a second year majoring in history and political science. Last summer, Aman interned at the FDA working on social science research projects. He writes a column on political developments in the Asia-Pacific at the Gate, having lived abroad for much of his life as an American citizen. On campus, he also serves as a Staff Editor on The University of Chicago Journal of Human Rights.