By Jemma Davoudian
On 6th December 2017, President Trump declared that the United States of America would now break from long standing diplomatic tradition and recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trump also announced the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv (where it’s been since 1966), to Jerusalem.
A quick bit of background on the conflict
Israel is the world’s only Jewish state. Palestinians are the Arab population whose ancestors inhabited the land on which Israel now stands.
Jerusalem contains holy sites for Judaism and Islam (and Christianity), so both Israel and Palestine want to make it their religious and/or political capital. Whether they can do so peacefully side by side has been the main source of conflict in the region.
Israel and Palestine have been long been in this dispute over the status of Jerusalem, with the official inception of the conflict being the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, which resulted in Israel seizing the western half of the city. Dubbed ‘Nakba’ (Arabic for ‘catastrophe’), this conflict resulted in the displacement of over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes.
The eastern half of Jerusalem was then seized in 1967, though many Palestinians regard this as an illegal occupation. Palestinians, therefore, continue to claim the city as their capital, and most predicted peace agreements would divide the city between them and the Israelis.
Until now, the official US position has been a mediator or peacekeeper between the Israelis and Palestinians, and have always remained neutral. Until Trump decided to take sides.
A peaceful solution?
Following the chaos of the late 90s and early 2000s, which saw a particularly violent period between the Israelis and Palestinians, labelled the “intifada”, any peace talks collapsed amidst suicide bombings, gunfire and rocket attacks. Since then, two main solution approaches have been gaining traction.
The ‘two state solution’ (considered the most favourable by many) would see the creation of independent Israeli and Palestinian states. Israelis could then realise themselves as a Jewish state, whilst Palestine would be an Arab one. Both would have designated zones in a shared capital city, Jerusalem.
In contrast, the ‘one state solution’ could take one of two pathways. In both, Israel and surrounding lands like the Gaza strip would merge into one country.
Then, in the scenario most favoured by leftists, a democratic country would emerge – one which does not have a Jewish majority.
The alternative, mostly favoured by the hard right, would be to annexe the land and enforce rule over the Palestinians, effectively denying them the right to vote.
Trump, by stating that the US would now recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital did not directly endorse the annexation of the city, but nor did he address whether the city could also be recognised as the Palestinian capital.
So what’s happening now?
With the US already widely unpopular among the majority of Arabs (due, in part, to the war in Iraq), Trump’s announcement is unlikely to change any opinions in a positive way. (But what else is new?)
Since the announcement, Israeli forces have fired ammunition at Palestinian protestors near the borders of Gaza and responded to rocket fire with an airstrike.
Two Palestinians have been reported as killed (by the Gaza Health Ministry), with hundreds more injured in the violence. Riots have broken out across many Palestinian territories.
The Israeli military are claiming that all hostilities are being caused by Hamas (a Palestinian militant group). Hamas, meanwhile, have responded to Trump’s decision by calling for a third intifada (aka, more violence).
Of course, Trump’s decision will not be immediate. It could take years to complete the US embassy transition from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Therefore, this decision could outlast Trump’s presidency… or be overshadowed by the decisions and actions of the Israelis and Palestinians themselves (and rightly so).
But why did Trump do it?
Despite the US having a long history of supporting Israel through substantial aid (now equalling around $3 billion per year), and half of all American UN Security Council vetoes being used to block any resolutions which appeared critical of Israel, there have been periods of conflict.
For example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticised the Obama administration on its approach to Iran (a country that’s always been openly anti-Israel) in 2015. His speech had been planned in collaboration with congressional Republicans. Therefore, Trump is once again trying to highlight how different he is to Obama.
There are also some prominent religious undertones to Trump’s declaration. Among hard line evangelicals, for example, are those that believe in the “End of Days” prophecy; a prophecy foretelling of Jewish control over Jerusalem, leading to an all-consuming war, the coming of a Messiah, and the ultimate choice between converting to Christianity or perishing at the hands of God.
Whatever his internal motivations, Trump is unashamedly emboldened by the fact that he “has yet again demonstrated to his evangelical supporters that he will do what he says he will do” to use Johnnie Moore’s (a spokesperson for Trump’s evangelical advisers) words.
….. and that’s that for now!