Wednesday, December 6, 2017

US Recognition of Jerusalem Fine in Theory, Flawed in Practice

Firstly - Yes, this blog is still live. Welcome back.

Today's announcement that the US will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has raised frantic speculation over the future of America's role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the broader Middle East. Ultimately, the speech acknowleged some realities that needed to be recognized, but did so in an unproductive and careless way.

First, the President's speech today made no mention of any of the historic and religious claims Palestinians have to Jerusalem. Arab Muslims have lived in Jerusalem for hundreds and hundreds of years. Al-Aqsa Mosque is an important Palestinian national symbol and the third holiest site in Islam. While we can argue for eternity as to whose claims are more legitimate, the reality is that neither side will give them up. While the President should be applauded for using the ambiguous phrase "Jerusalem" versus "united/undivided Jerusalem," his omission of the "East/West" division is being read across the Arab world, predictably, as an erasure of Palestinian claims to the city and a lack of recognition of centuries of history. His caveats about mutual negotiation of borders at the end of the speech came across to Arab audiences as an afterthought. This was an avoidable mistake and the speech could have easily been written to address these concerns.

Second, the Knesset, Prime Minister and President's residences, Israel's Supreme Court, and its ministries are in Jerusalem. By any reasonable definition this makes Jerusalem a capital city. It is accurate that today's statement by President Trump recognizes a reality on the ground - one that many people have taken absurd steps to deny. However, other realities exist as well that ought to be recognized. For example, Jerusalem is already divided de facto. Palestinians often face hardship traveling in and out of Jerusalem. City planning decisions often favor Jewish Israelis over Palestinians. Acknowledging realities on the ground is good, but acknowledging all realities on the ground is better for negotiating a final status agreement.

Finally, the argument "Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel because it's the capital of Palestine," is invalid. To claim on the one hand that Palestinian claims are being erased and on the other hand that Tel Aviv is Israel's capital and Jews have no claim to Jerusalem is rank hypocrisy and deeply offensive given the significance of Jerusalem to Judaism. Jerusalem is mentioned hundreds of times in the Torah, it contains the holiest site in Judaism, and is a religious and cultural heart of the Jewish people. These statements can be true without denying that the city has deep and meaningful significance for other religions too. The weaponization of recognizing the significance of Jerusalem - on both sides - perpetuates our broken status quo and ultimately sets back both the Israeli and Palestinian aspiration for a state with Jerusalem as the capital.

Nobody wants a divided Jerusalem. Unfortuantely, it is the most sustainable and realistic option. An Israeli capital in the West, a Palestinian capital in the East, and a close to status quo agreement over the Temple Mount that assures access to holy sites is the least bad choice. Today's announcement could have moved the parties in that direction by offering carefully-worded assurances and forcing parties to engage rather than talk about talking about engaging. Instead, it carelesly affirmed suspicions about the United States and its leadership that will ultimately constrain even further America's ability to conduct foreign policy in the Middle East.

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