Trump and the Jerusalem issue

Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 

Trump and the Jerusalem issue


After risking a nuclear conflict with North Korea, Trump has targeted the most sensitive geopolitical hotspot in the world. By moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and recognising the city as the capital of Israel, the prospects of an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are likely to recede.

Is this an act of diplomatic arson, the débâcle of the century, the utter contempt for the views of the rest of the world? Or is there an undisclosed plan in Trump's initiative?

How about the stance of Russia, China and India and the reaction of Iran?


In 1995 the US Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act but allowed US presidents to postpone its application for six months: Clinton, Bush and Obama re-ratified the clause every six months. Having promised to move the embassy during his campaign, Trump reluctantly renewed the clause for the first time in June 2017. But six months on his decision came.

As for the position of the international community, Jerusalem is viewed as an issue for final status negotiations between the two sides. United Nations suggest that the city could remain the capital of both Israel and a future Palestinian state.

Both Israelis and Palestinians insist that Jerusalem must be the capital of their states. But it is not just important to them. The old city of Jerusalem contains the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest mosque in Islam, to say nothing of its enormous significance to Christians. There is no way to overestimate the significance of the one square kilometre delimiting that tiny place sacred to billions of people worldwide who will likely never see or set foot in the city.

Current situation

The move is perceived by the Arab world as one not just moving the US embassy to West Jerusalem but as an implicit validation of Israel's control over East Jerusalem (which Israel captured in 1967) representing a US effort to change its policy unilaterally to the detriment of the Palestinians. Given Palestinian and Arab sensitivities over Jerusalem, Hamas has already raised tensions, joined by the Palestinian Authority.

Mass protests have broken out in Jerusalem against Trump's decision which could allow the Israeli government to take measures to expel Palestinian who live in those areas deep into the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan's King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Saudi Arabia's King Salman, Turkish President Erdogan have joined a mounting chorus condemning the unilateral US steps on Jerusalem destined to derail the peace effort and unleash turmoil in the region.

The United Nations General Assembly has delivered a stinging rebuke to Trump, voting by a huge majority to reject his initiative. United States and Israel were supported only by Togo, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Marshall Islands, Guatemala and Honduras. Also in the United Nations Security Council US was isolated with all other members voting against US initiative.

Trump's initiative

Some US officials had warned that US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital could trigger a backlash against Israel and also potentially against US interests in the Middle East. They also estimated that it would upset the Israeli-Palestinian peace push led by Trump son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, in pursuit of what Trump had called the “ultimate deal”.

So, apart from his promise during the electoral campaign, what pushed Trump to move ahead? If it is not about being pro-Israel (the prominent Jewish leaders in America are not pro-Trump), then it could just be the move of a businessman who makes deals through foreign policy.

It is possible that his violent verbal attacks against North Korea while blaming China inability to calm down Pyongyang did serve the purpose of pressurising China, forcing it to make concessions on a number of issues in different areas. But nowadays Trump cannot exploit any more this expedient as the North Korea's launches have become routine and, consequently, the aggressive statements have lost ground and strength.

After so many years of trying and no progress being achieved in Israel-Palestine peace talks, Trump has likely considered that US is wasting time and losing credibility in the Middle East while Russia's influence, after the defeat of IS and anti-government forces in Syria, is growing day by day.

Having already made the most of East Asia, Trump might have considered it proper to switch to the Middle East where US clout was at its lowest ebb following US interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia. So, why not recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital as a first step to impress the Arab countries which, after an initial hostility, will look at the US again hoping that Trump will force Netanyahu to restart the peace process. In fact Trump's statement wants “a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides” while not recognizing East Jerusalem as part of Israel.

The risk is that if Palestine turns definitely away from the US , Russia chances to head the peace process can greatly increase and, if successful, this would equate to a US bitter defeat.

India, China and Russia's stance

Seven days after US recognized the holy city as capital of Israel, foreign ministers from India, China and Russia notably refrained from recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine at their annual meeting in New Delhi.

At this year's 15th annual meeting, they supported “an independent, viable, territorially contiguous Palestinian State living side by side in peace and security with Israel within mutually agreed and internationally recognized borders” without mentioning the issue of Jerusalem.

The decision not to restate the position long-held by all three countries was in marked contrast to their joint call at last year's meeting in Moscow for a “sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital.” The absence of Jerusalem from this year statement is in sharp contrast with the strident opposition to the US move in the Arab and Muslim world.

Iran's reaction

A strong opposition to Trump's move revolves around the state with a consistent and comprehensive anti-Israeli strategy, namely the Islamic Republic of Iran. Starting from the “Oslo Accords” in 1993, Iran consistently opposed diplomatic and political initiatives to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the grounds that they simply would not work given Israel's huge political and diplomatic advantages (Israeli lobby in the US). According to Iran any peace deal would involve disproportionate and unreciprocated Palestinian concessions.

The Iranian position has been shaped by the complex strategic, political and diplomatic Middle East environment. Whilst ideologically Iran wants the annihilation of Israel, in reality is engaged into a conventional geostrategic conflict with Israel centred on the Middle East and sometimes outside its periphery.

Iran maintains that fragmentation and discord in the Arab and Sunni world allows the US and Israel to undertake such bold steps.

Iran analysts go further by identifying a clear Saudi hand in Trump's decision and see it as part of a broader Saudi alignment with the strategic priorities of Israel.

But there is also food for thought for Turkey. According to Iran assessment, notwithstanding Erdogan's strong position on the issue, as evidenced by the resolution of previous disputes bilateral ties between Turkey and Israel are strong enough to overcome the current war of words between the leaders of the two countries.


For a number of decades the international community has been discussing the possibility of a two-state solution: but where is the second state? Palestinians have already relinquished their claim to the whole of Palestine and accepted the division of the territory. Israel, on the other hand, continues to build illegal settlements on Palestinian land. There is a clear asymmetry: Israel is already a state, a very powerful state and as such feels to have the upper hand over a lesser player.

It is probably high time for Israel and for the international community to acknowledge Palestine as a sovereign state and once this happens, serious talks should begin at once. Two states existing side by side on equal footing would be the only way to guarantee fairness for the Palestinians and security for Israel. Nations that have not yet recognized Palestine as a sovereign state could do so now.

As for Jerusalem, the city has been tangibly resized to suit Israel's strategic, symbolic and political objectives. But Israel should not be given a blank check to redraw and reshape the city as it pleases. The only way forward is a negotiated solution that protects the rights and opportunities of all those living in the region to worship, to build, to move, to go to school, to take part in the city's heritage, and to participate politically and economically.

It is necessary to build the trust needed to quell violence and promote peace in Jerusalem and in the region as a whole. Recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, without any hint to a Palestine sovereign state, throws the fate of Jerusalem's Arab-Palestinians residents into uncertainty.

The world could draw some comfort from the fact that no immediate move of the US embassy is imminent. It may not even happen before Trump's term expires in January 2021. Hopefully this will be like Trump's break from the Paris accords on climate change: more symbolic than concrete.