Trump on Jerusalem: What Happened, and Why It Matters

Israeli soldiers in the Old City of Jerusalem after the Six-Day War

When Israel was founded, in 1948, Jerusalem was intended to be an international city. Yet, thanks to an invasion by five of the new country’s neighbors, by the time the dust settled, Jerusalem was a divided city. The eastern portion had come under Jordanian control, and the western portion was firmly in Israeli hands. Israel’s Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared that he would not permit the “forced separation of Jerusalem” and that it was Israel’s “Eternal” capital. Meanwhile, East Jerusalem became the “alternative capital of the Hashemite Kingdom” (Jordan). However, after another war and six days later, East Jerusalem came under Israeli control. Israel wasted no time integrating the two halves of the city. The municipal boundaries of Jerusalem were extended to the eastern sector, which was also placed under Israeli law and administration. In addition, freedom of religion was established, reversing the Islamization policies put in place by Jordan.

However, all was not as it seemed. Not a single country recognized Israel’s annexation, or any part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Most countries maintained the idea that Jerusalem should be treated as an international city, regardless of the reality on the ground. In addition, East Jerusalem’s Arab residents, although having found themselves in Israel after the Six-Day War, were not given citizenship automatically. Instead, they are given Israeli permanent residence and an option to apply for citizenship. However, few do, since it is seen as a denial of their Palestinian identity. In addition, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), established in 1964 to replace Israel with a Palestinian state, claimed Jerusalem (and continues to claim the eastern portion) as the capital of Palestine.

Muslim, Christian, and Jewish holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem

This tenuous political situation is further complicated by the status of Jerusalem (especially the Old City, located in the east) as a holy city in Judaism (the majority religion in Israel), Islam (the majority religion in the Palestinian territories) and Christianity. For religious Jews, Jerusalem is at the center of their religion. In ancient times, Judaism was centered in one of the two temples (Beit HaMikdash, “the house of holiness”) on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Jewish texts and blessings contain numerous references to Jerusalem, and “next year in [a rebuilt] Jerusalem” has been repeated as a mantra for some two thousand years. Meanwhile, Jerusalem (Al-Quds, “the Holy”) is the third holiest city in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven from Jerusalem, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque was built on the Temple Mount soon after his death. Finally, many of the key events in the life of Jesus occurred in Jerusalem, making it an important city for Christians as well.

Although the Jerusalem Law of 1980 further cemented the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, yet again, it remained unrecognized. In order to make a point, Israeli funds were allocated to Jerusalem’s development, and the Law prohibited the transfer of Jerusalem’s sovereignty to any other country. However, the Jerusalem Embassy Act, passed by the US Congress in 1995, was a game changer. It stipulated that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and move its embassy there (from Tel Aviv, where the US, along with other countries, maintain an embassy to Israel, despite Tel Aviv not being Israel’s capital). It also stipulated that the President would be permitted to sign a waiver every six months, delaying the implementation of the Act. Since then, four presidents dutifully reissued this waiver twice a year, on grounds of national security concerns.

During his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump repeatedly promised to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. This in itself was not particularly unusual, given the fact that most presidential candidates have made similar statements. However, on December 6th, now-President Trump formally recognized Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and stipulated that the embassy was to be moved. Israeli reactions, were, for the most part, positive. Likud (the ruling right-wing party) and Labor (left-wing, the largest opposition party), and most other Israeli political parties strongly supported the proclamation. However, Meretz, a far-left party, condemned it, along with the Arab “Joint List”. Despite the fanfare, President Trump also signed the waiver immediately afterwards, delaying the embassy move for at least another six months. In addition, the statement issued did not specify what the borders of Jerusalem are, meaning that they could be changed as a result of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. The State Department clarified this, and pointed out that even if everything was to occur on schedule, the embassy move will take at least two years.

Regardless, the world reacted with disapproval when the decision was announced. The European Union reaffirmed the position of its member states, that the status of Jerusalem will be settled through negotiations. China, too, issued a similar statement, however, stipulated that it calls for East Jerusalem to be the Palestinian capital. Interestingly enough, Russia already unelaborately recognized West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and, as such, simply expressed “concern” over the announcement. Arab and Muslim states, however, did not hold back their rage. The King of Saudi Arabia called the announcement “a dangerous step of relocation or recognition of Al-Quds as the capital of Israel would constitute a flagrant provocation of Muslims, all over the world.” Turkey’s Erdoğan called it a “red line” for Muslims. Iran also lashed out at Israel and the US, while recognizing Jerusalem as the “capital of Palestine”. Other Arab and Muslim countries followed suit, along with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Even more, Malaysia threatened to declare war on Israel and send soldiers to Jerusalem. The United Nations also held an emergency session, criticizing the United States for the announcement.

Palestinian leadership, too, was unimpressed with the announcement. Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president, called it “deplorable and unacceptable” and said that it serves to “deliberately undermine all peace efforts”. Hamas, a radical group in opposition to the Palestinian Authority, called for another intifada, or Palestinian uprising. In response, the Palestinian street exploded. Around 5,000 Palestinian protesters participated in riots and clashed with Israeli security forces across the West Bank and Gaza on the Friday after the announcement. The protests continued over the next few days. According to Palestinian officials, two protesters were killed in the area near the Gaza border. Israel confirmed that soldiers fired on two “inciters”. Meanwhile, the Red Cross noted that 15 people were injured by tear gas and rubber bullets. In numerous locations across the West Bank, riots occurred, involving rock throwing, and the use of Molotov cocktails, by demonstrators. They also lit tires on fire, and rolled them towards Israeli soldiers. The soldiers used typical riot control, such as tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. However, live fire was also occasionally used.

Map of East and West Jerusalem, showing important Israeli government sites

This move represents a break from decades of American foreign policy. President after president made it clear that the status of Jerusalem was to be decided only by negotiations. Certainly, President Trump did not say explicitly that East Jerusalem is part of Israel (or Israel’s capital), but many see this as implied. After all, Israeli policy is that Jerusalem is a single united city, and on the ground, this is the case in many ways. Also on the ground, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. All the important Israeli government buildings, such as the Knesset (parliament), Supreme Court, main military cemetery (Mount Herzl), as well as the headquarters of all the cabinet ministries. Interestingly, these are all located in West Jerusalem, although this is more a function of the fact that East Jerusalem was Jordanian for the first nineteen years of Israel’s existence than a statement on how Jerusalem should be split.

It is also important to note that Israel itself accepted the principle of Jerusalem’s borders being up for negotiation. In the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, it was stated that “it is understood that these [later] negotiations shall cover remaining issues, including: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and co-operation with other neighbours, and other issues of common interest.” Of course, more than two decades of conflict rendered much of the Oslo Accords obsolete, but this rather explicit acceptance still very much exists. Meanwhile, the official Palestinian position is that Jerusalem should be divided as well. However, there is a deep distrust of Israel, and a widespread belief that Israel is looking to keep all of Jerusalem for itself. This belief is not particularly unfounded, given Israeli statements on the topic (in which Jerusalem is repeatedly described as in the divisible capital).

The announcement is likely to have a significant impact on Middle Eastern geopolitics, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Although it does not change the reality on the ground, or benefit any party in any way (aside from a symbolic benefit to Israel), Palestinians and other Muslim leaders began to question America’s commitment to the peace process. For example, Mahmoud Abbas said that he believes that the US is “abdicating its role as a peace mediator”. In addition, Israel is currently in the process normalizing relations with several Arab and Muslim states. However, they all condemned the move and Turkey, one of the few Muslim states with full diplomatic relations with Israel, threatened to cut them off.

President Trump and the Middle Eastern Game of Revenge

Last week, President Trump signed off on an executive order by the name of “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”. This order temporarily ends the United States Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, while denying entry to all citizens of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days.

Arguably, this move was made by President Trump to make good on his campaign promise to ban immigration from countries with a “proven history of terrorism”, specifically, Muslim-majority countries located in the Middle East. However, it was met with criticism from those who pointed out that all of the countries of origin of the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates). In fact, not one person was killed in America by terrorists from any one of the banned countries (despite there being three non-deadly attacks committed by people connected with Iran and Somalia). In addition, prominent figures around the world condemned the ban as an example of religious prejudice. This included lawmakers from the Republican Party.

President Trump and his supporters justified the ban by point out the dangers of radical Islamic terrorism. For example, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer asked “what happened if we didn’t act and someone was killed?” to provide support for the order.

This order also set off a series of negative (to say the least) reactions across the Islamic world. Iran went to the most extreme length, by issuing a similar ban on citizens of the United States. This is the statement issued by Iran on this ban:

“In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

Statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic of Iran

The decision of the Government of the United States to impose restrictions on the travel of
Muslims to the United States – though temporarily for three months – is a clear insult to the
Islamic world, and especially the great nation of Iran; and despite claims of being made to
combat terrorism and protecting the people of the United States, it will be recorded in history
as a great gift to extremists and their supporters.

While the international community needs dialogue and cooperation to address the roots of
violence and extremism in a comprehensive and inclusive manner, and at a time when the
United Nations General Assembly approved by consensus the proposal of the President of the
Islamic Republic of Iran for a World Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE), the imprudent
decision of the US. Government to apply collective discrimination against citizens of Muslim
countries will only serve to provide a fertile ground for more terrorist recruitment by deepening
the ruptures and fault-lines which have been exploited by extremist demagogues to swell their
ranks with disenfranchised and marginalized youth, and further promote their campaign of
hatred, violence and extremism. Moreover, with this decision, the reports of US. intelligence
and security organs and past statements of current US officials which emphasized on the role of
the United States and its regional allies in fomenting and expanding extremist groups, including
Da’esh (ISIL), appear to have been conveniently forgotten.

The decision of the Government of the United States to target the people of Iran and clearly
insult all sections of this great nation has put on clear display the baselessness of the US. claims
of friendship with the Iranian people while only having issues with the Government of Iran. It
also shows the rancor and enmity of some in the US government and influential circles both
within the United States and abroad towards all Iranians around the world: The Iranian nation
who, benefiting from an ancient and rich civilization and religious beliefs founded on
humanitarian values, has always promoted the message of constructive engagement, not only
resisted domination but also the temptations to dominate others, and fought extremism and
violence; a resilient nation which has stood firm in the face of extremist terrorists and which
was among the first victims of organized terrorism; a great people which has had no presence
in any extremist terrorist operation, but instead in all societies in which it has traveled or resided
as scientists, students, entrepreneurs, tourists or immigrants, has been known as one of the
most law abiding, cultured, educated and successful communities, thus representing its Iranian
and Islamic culture and civilization in the most dignified and peace-loving manner.

To ensure respect for the dignity of all members of the great Iranian nation at home and abroad,
the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran will engage in a careful assessment of the short
and medium-term impact of the decision of the US. Government on Iranian nationals, and will
take proportionate legal, consular and political action and – while respecting the American
people and differentiating between them and the hostile policies of the US. Government – will
take reciprocal measures in order to safeguard the rights of its citizens until the time of the
removal of the insulting restrictions of the Government of the United States against Iranian

In order to monitor the implementation of this decision and adopt appropriate measures
commensurate with national interest in specific cases, a mechanism is established in the
Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran with the participation of relevant

Meanwhile, all diplomatic and consular missions of the Islamic Republic of Iran have been
instructed to prioritize the provision of consular facilities to all Iranian nationals who due to the
illegal step of the Government of the United States have been prevented from returning to their
places of residence, work and education.

The decision of the Government of the United States incorporates certain requests that are
illegal, illogical and contrary to international law. Considering the absence of relations between
the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States, those requests are not applicable to and
cannot be accommodated by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Any abuse by the
United States of this situation to prolong the discriminatory measures and cause any further
inconvenience for Iranian nationals is not only illegal but against common sense.

The Islamic Republic of Iran will carefully examine and legally pursue any negligence or violation
of the international obligations of the United States under bilateral agreements and multilateral
arrangements and reserves the right to respond as deemed necessary.”

Iran also went a step further by eliminating the use of the US dollar on financial statements. Of course, this is a largely symbolic statement. However, it is indicative of what could very well become a dangerous precedent in relations between the United States and Muslim-majority states.