US policy about Jerusalem

I have been asked what difference it makes if the US chose to move our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Here are much better answers than I can give you, from our Presbyterian mission co-worker based in Jerusalem.

Q: What is the significance of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?

A: Jerusalem is the home of holy sites for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. It holds cultural, political, historical, and economic significance for both Israelis and Palestinians. Both peoples name it as their capital, the centre of their national identity.

After the war that founded Israel in 1948, the new country held the western part of Jerusalem, with the east side held by Jordan. Israel then occupied the rest of Jerusalem in 1967 and unilaterally annexed it in 1980, against international law. This move is not recognised by the international community, and countries around the world reject Israeli sovereignty over the city with none holding embassies in Jerusalem. Rather, Jerusalem’s significance to both sides has kept it a final status issue, to be decided upon by both Israelis and Palestinians in the context of a resolution to the conflict.

If the United States moves its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it would not only violate international law as well as the international consensus on Jerusalem it led and maintained, but in effect declare its agreement that Israel has complete and final sovereignty over Jerusalem as its capital, excluding any Palestinian claim to the city. The consequences cannot be stated too strongly. The U.S. would essentially be declaring an end to the pursuit of a two-state solution, in which a sovereign Palestine lays at least partial claim to its capital, and an end to its role as a self-proclaimed “honest broker” in the conflict.

Further, such a move would be seen as an attack on and rejection of the Arab and Muslim attachment to Jerusalem and to Palestine itself and as a free pass to Israel to claim more Palestinian land. This would no doubt ignite violent reactions, not just from Palestinians but from Arabs around the region for whom Jerusalem also holds great spiritual and political significance. Israel might benefit symbolically from the move, but it would pay for it in an increase in violence and unrest on the ground, as well as damage to the diplomatic gains Israel has made with its neighbours.

Q:What is the significance of naming David Friedman as ambassador to Israel?

A: David Friedman, a lawyer who counselled Trump in past bankruptcy proceedings, has a history of extreme statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which are out of line with the bipartisan consensus of U.S. foreign policy and international law. He supports aggressive pro-settlement activity; he is the head of the American Friends of Bet El Institutions, which has raised tens of millions of dollars for the illegal settlement of Bet El, located to the north of Jerusalem. He categorically opposes a two-state solution without articulating what should replace it. Friedman has also made statements claiming Israel’s sole sovereignty over Jerusalem, problematic for the reasons outlined above. Appointing Friedman as ambassador to Israel could signal a shift to the extreme right in U.S. policy on Israel-Palestine. However, during his confirmation hearing, Friedman articulated regret over some of his inflammatory statements, and asserted that he would uphold the president’s policies regardless of his own opinions. He also admitted that settlement expansion is not conducive to a peace deal. During the hearing, he said he was in support of a two-state solution, with conditions. Ultimately, whatever his true views, Friedman’s position does not grant him enough power to substantively change the U.S. approach to Israel unless it comes from the administration itself.

Q: What happened at Trump’s recent meeting with Netanyahu and what is the significance of his statements on a two-state solution?

A: Trump and Netanyahu met in Washington, D.C. on February 15 and held a joint press conference. Trump’s language regarding his take on a final resolution of the conflict wasn’t clear: “I’m looking at two states and one state, and I like the one both parties like… I can live with either one.” Some have proclaimed this the end of the United States’ support of the two-state solution. Some have seen it as signalling Trump’s openness to a one-state solution. Still others say it simply reinforces the policy that Israelis and Palestinians must negotiate the terms of their resolution, without terms being imposed upon them.

Given the history of the two-state formula- in particular the firmness, even inflexibility, with which the U.S. has held onto it- it does seem significant that Trump named a one-state solution as a possibility. However, one state can be implemented in radically different ways: a state for all its citizens, each given equal rights, or a state defined by one ethnic-religious identity which preferences, in rights and freedoms, one category over all others. It is unclear which vision of a one-state solution Trump had in mind.

In the press conference, Trump also suggested Israel might “hold back a bit” on settlement expansion, using language less forceful than his predecessor’s though not a carte blanche. Netanyahu said he was willing to discuss the possibility.

Netanyahu himself suggested a break with decades of U.S. policy by asking for recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, territory Israel occupied in 1967 at the same time it occupied east Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, and the Sinai. Israel’s occupation of the Golan, like that of the other territories, is considered illegal under international law.

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