It’s sacred ground for the world’s three major religions, an ancient holy place that’s been a strategic military objective for warring armies since before the crucifixion of Jesus. Designated an international city, it has been highly disputed territory in modern times, the focal point for the generational cycle of Middle East bloodshed between Arabs and Israelis.
Yet when he declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel on Tuesday, analysts say, President Donald Trump did far more than insert himself as a controversial new character in the Holy City’s centuries-old, troubled history.
In his speech Wednesday, Trump swept aside a seven-decade policy of the U.S. to not take a position on Jerusalem in an effort to be seen as an honest broker in delicate, at times frustrating peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The risky move, many say, could incite more violence between the two, yet it carries little to no upside for established U.S. strategic or diplomatic goals in the region.
In walking past urgent warnings from allies like Germany and England, and predictions of dire consequences from Pope Francis, analysts say, Trump is kicking a hornet’s nest: He handed a huge political win to embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under investigation for corruption, and enraged Palestinians while further withdrawing the U.S. from its long-held position of global leadership.
Considering the predictions that the move will contribute to Mideast instability, it’s hard to understand what Trump was thinking when he decided to make it, says Jon B. Alterman, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It’s possible that the president has gotten some sort of commitment from Netanyahu, and this will kick off a round of peacemaking,” says Alterman, who directs the center’s Midieast Studies program. “It’s possible that the president just wants to be bold, it’s possible that the president just thinks there’s a whole bunch of fuss about nothing and this is not a big deal at all. It’s possible he’s been poorly advised.”
Nevertheless, “there aren’t a lot of signs that this is embedded in strategy” for peace talks or protection of U.S. interests, Alterman says. “It’s troubling because this will have consequences [in American relationships] with the Palestinians, in the Middle East, and among many of our friends and allies.”
Aaron Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center and a former State Department Middle East negotiator under Republican and Democratic administrations, shares that perspective.
“Perhaps the administration believes that a statement is less damaging than actually starting the process of opening an embassy,” Miller wrote in an essay posted Wednesday on CNN.com. “But unless the move is part of some pre-negotiated deal with Israel that offers up some significant concession to the Palestinians, it would serve no compelling U.S. national interest.”
The move was hailed by evangelical Christians, who overwhelmingly chose Trump in the 2016 election. That’s largely because, in the Christian Old Testament, King David established Jerusalem as Israel’s capital about 1,000 years before Christ.
Given the prominence of Israel and its people in the Scriptures, evangelicals believe that Israelis “have a unique place in history as God’s special people, so Israel deserves deferential treatment – and Jerusalem deserves the same,” Gary M. Burge, a theologian who teaches at Calvin Theological Seminary, wrote in The Atlantic.
One of the world’s most fiercely contested parcels of land, Jerusalem has been at the heart of conflict almost since its founding in 3000 B.C. Christians believe it’s where Christ was crucified, Muslims consider it the site where the prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven, and Jews have embraced it as their spiritual homeland for centuries.
In ancient times, Jerusalem was primarily ethnically Jewish, but it has come under control of a succession of conquerors: the Romans, the Arab Empire and the Ottoman Turks, among others. The British and French occupied the city in the wake of World War I, but plans to convert it into a Jewish homeland spurred the modern cycle of conflict between Jews and Arabs.
After decades of hostilities, the United Nations General Assembly in 1947 endorsed a plan: Palestine would be partitioned, creating an Arab State and a Jewish State, with Jerusalem to be placed under international status. But the Arabs rejected the plan, and Israel, after capturing the territory in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, gradually moved government functions to West Jerusalem. Most countries, including the U.S., established diplomatic headquarters in Tel Aviv to respect the U.N. designation.
In his speech Wednesday, Trump said he wanted to jump-start stalled peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with “fresh thinking” and a radical approach that acknowledged reality: Israel, for all intents and purposes, already considers Jerusalem its capital.
“It was 70 years ago that the United States, under President Truman, recognized the state of Israel,” Trump said. “Ever since then, Israel has made its capital in the city of Jerusalem – the capital the Jewish people established in ancient times.”
Even now, “Jerusalem is the seat of the modern Israeli government. It is the home of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, as well as the Israeli Supreme Court,” along with the official headquarters of government ministries and the residences of public officials, including Netanyahu.
“Today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” Trump said, urging Palestinians to embrace the change, join in peace talks and “work through” disputes about Jerusalem. “This is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do.”
Alterman, the CSIS Middle East expert, says a lot about Trump’s decision remains unclear and depends on Trump’s explicit definition of Jerusalem. The boundaries, he says, range from areas of the city which have overwhelmingly Jewish populations that includes the Israeli government, to the entire swath of land on which Jerusalem sits – a distinction that could mean the difference between peace and conflict.
“I don’t know if the president is going to recognize the first Jerusalem or the second Jerusalem,” Alterman says. “The first Jerusalem is irrelevant, the second is all that matters. If the president recognizes the second Jerusalem, that would be a big deal.”
Nevertheless, anointing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital is a blow to the Palestinians, who claim Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem as the future capital of their independent state. Trump’s move, Alterman says, undermines Palestinians’ trust in the U.S. to negotiate an even-handed peace deal.
“They see this as a sign of deep U.S. bias” towards Israel, Alterman says. “The Palestinian view is that Israel has all the leverage in the world and the Palestinians have very little, and this represents Israel getting something for nothing and that the U.S. isn’t serious about resolving this conflict. I think that argument is going to be an easier argument tomorrow than it was yesterday.”
Still, Nadim Shehadi, director of The Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, believes doomsayers are overreacting. It’s entirely possible, he says, that Trump, the Israelis and the Palestinians can still arrive at a two-state peace deal with Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine.
“We are seeing a panic about nothing so far,” he says. Trump’s announcement, he says, “can be a positive thing as well as a negative thing. People assume the worst because it is Trump,” even though recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has been mentioned as part of negotiations between the two sides.
And even though a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem is probably years away, Shehadi says, the president’s announcement has had an impact.
“Until today,” he says, “nobody cared about the Palestine-Israel conflict. This has brought it back to the fore. [Trump] put it back on the table.”