Everything is out of perspective. The decision by Donald Trump to move the Israeli U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem should be a non-event. The Israeli government operates out of Jerusalem, and moving our embassy out of Tel Aviv really accomplishes little other than giving our embassy employees a shorter commute when they need to deal face to face with the Israeli government. (OK, I know that it will increase the commute of our embassy personnel, and many of them will decide to move to Jerusalem, but that’s another story.)
But as usual, Trump didn’t handle the announcement of the move well. Why not? Because he didn’t define what he means by “Jerusalem” and in fact left the definition up in the air by affirmatively stating that he was neither defining the boundaries of Jerusalem or trying to tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians how to divide authority over the City, if in fact they ever decide to reach an accommodation on control of Jerusalem.
But much of the Israeli populace, including the government, is treating this like a much larger event than it seems to me that it is. The official Israeli position is that Jerusalem cannot be divided again, and that Israel needs to exercise control over it all. In saying this, I don’t believe that the government has adopted an official position about the status of the Arab residents of East Jerusalem, but it has made it clear that places holy to other religions, and permission to freely worship at those sites for those properly in Israel, will be respected. Because Jerusalem cannot be divided, much of the Israeli population concludes that Trump has said that the position of the United States is that Israel should be able to control all of Jerusalem. Hence, the celebrations. But, the celebrations are premature, because that is clearly not what the president said.
From the Palestinian perspective, and indeed from what appears to be the perspective of the majority of the Arab and Muslim world, the Trump decision is as bad as it is good in the opinion of the Israelis. For the Arab position, like the Israeli position, is that Jerusalem cannot be divided, but – as opposed to the Israeli position – the Arabs believe that they, or at least the Palestinians, should have full control over the entire city, and – again unlike the Israelis – they certainly have not declared that under their sovereignty, the Jews (or the Christians for that matter) would have access to the holy sites of those religions. In fact, the Arab position, as evidenced by the many resolutions of various United Nations agencies and recently the General Assembly itself, is that the Jews have no historic or present right to any part of Jerusalem.
But there is one point where the Jews and the Arabs seem to agree. Just as the Jews have extrapolated on the Trump announcement to conclude that Trump has stated the American position as given Israel exclusive jurisdiction over Jerusalem, the Arabs have reached the identical conclusion. And because the idea of Jewish control over Jerusalem is anathema to the pervading Palestinian position, the Arabs view the president’s announcement as a tragedy. and one which requires the harshest response.
Jerusalem has about 900,000 residents. Approximately 550,000 are Jewish, and 350,000 are Arab (almost all Muslim). Neither group is about to leave; that should be obvious. And because Jews and Arabs, by and large, live in differing neighborhoods, it is possible to divide the city on ethnic grounds, and it is conceivable that a two state solution could provide that one part of Jerusalem (West) is the capital of Israel and another part (East) is the capital of Palestine. Of course, because Israel has expanded the boundaries largely into previously unincorporated areas of the West Bank, access to East Jerusalem from the West Bank is harder than it used to be. This has worked to the detriment of the Palestinian position, and the Palestinians have logically concluded that Israeli activity in this regard is not over. You would think that this would have led them to try to reach an accommodation with Israel earlier rather than later, but this has not been the case.
This is because a large portion of the Palestinian and broader Arab population believes that Israel has usurped all the land that the country maintains is its own, and any accommodation would be viewed as capitulation. It’s position is as stated above, that Palestinians have the right to control all of Jerusalem, and that in fact they also have the right to control the remainder of what is now Israel.
Leadership on both sides today tend to support these opposed, and impossible to realize, positions. The leaders were put into office because their positions reflect the general positions of the populace and, in turn, deepen the feelings on the street by their vocal support of these extremes.
Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and saying at the same time that the boundaries of the city, and the division of the city’s control, is therefore a non-event on a rational level. The final determination of control over Jerusalem is being withheld as one of the final items to be negotiated by the “two states”. Whether the embassy is in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv is, on this basis, without any import.
But, for their own reasons, both sides have decided that there is more to this decision than meets the eye. That it presages an American position that Israel deserves everything and the Palestinians nothing, and that this has been the position of the United States all along, and that “aha, this proves it”.
There is nothing in the Trump statement to lead to this conclusion. You need to read between the lines. But, then, both Jews and Arabs are used to reading between lines. All I can see is what I can see. To me, both sides should ignore this move, and continue on with their regular activities. But to them, I am being naive, and the world has changed.
So what will the Trump statement do? Will it unleash the evil instincts that have always been just below (and sometimes above) the surface in the region, who were just looking for an excuse to erupt? Or will the current unrest die down, and both parties come to the conclusion that a final agreement is now more important than ever? Hoping for the latter, and fearing the former, we will just have to wait and see.